Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

In a nutshell

1. What is body language?

Mind and body operate as one: what you are doing with your body, your posture and so on, affects how you feel and vice versa. There are three categories of nonverbal communication, or body language:

  • Conscious (as in giving someone directions)
  • Semi-conscious – movements or gestures which help us express ideas; we are not always fully conscious of using them, yet, if asked, we can notice them
  • Unconscious – other nonverbal signals are micro-movements that are completely unconscious, such as subtle shifts in the expression of the eyes and face or the positioning of the body. These are impossible to fake as they are generated by thoughts and mental attitudes without our conscious volition or control.

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2. The body/mind connection

Whatever your mind is thinking about or whatever you are feeling will be reflected in your body language, your movements, stance, the way you tilt your head and move your eyes and so on. What many people have not yet realised is that this works in the reverse as well: our minds will begin to respond to what we are doing with our bodies.

  • Ultimately, if you want to exhibit appropriate body language, you also need to have the right mental attitude to go with it.
  • Just as your mental attitude affects your body language, so it will also affect your voice – thought, body language and voice all go together.

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3. Why is it important to you?

Communication skills are so important that they have the power to make or break your career!

  • In roughly 80 per cent of personal development coaching assignments, a director or HR manager has specified body language as a particular area for improvement.
  • Body language communicates important messages to others about who someone is and his or her mental attitude at a given moment.
  • How people perceive you in turn affects their mental attitudes towards you – and in fact their entire relationship with you.

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4. Background principles

For interpreting others’ body language with any accuracy, it is essential to take the following into account when considering the body language of others:

  • Context – if someone’s arms are crossed in front of them during your conversation, is that due to their feeling defensive or do they just feel cold?
  • Congruence – do the person’s facial expressions and body movements/positioning reflect their words?
  • Clusters – is the person displaying more than one type of body language that suggests the same thing? In other words, arms crossed, legs crossed and head down together with lack of eye contact could indicate defensiveness, or some other relatively negative mindset, such as annoyance, anger or lack of confidence. Even so, we would need to take the context into consideration to be sure. (Only one of the signals alone would not be such a clear indication of a negative mental attitude; however, it would still bear investigation.)

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5. Two schools of thought

There are two schools of thought on applying the findings of research into nonverbal communication/body language.

  • The NLP approach is based on the idea of purposely behaving in ways that are likely to put people at ease, foster good feelings or rapport between people and encourage open communication on the part of the other party, chiefly through matching, mirroring and pacing.
  • Synergology brings something new to the field of nonverbal communication by further developing, deciphering and cataloguing an area not previously addressed in such detail: the micro-movements of the face and body.
  • Synergology shows how by simply concentrating on understanding the other person, rather than on ourselves, we are able to develop a better quality of communication over time.

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6. Posture

Whether you are standing or seated, good posture appears balanced and confident.

  • If you ensure your back is straight and your shoulders are square, you will not only come across as confident but, thanks to the mind-body connection, you will also feel more confident.
  • An unbalanced stance appears lacking in authority.
  • Sit with your chair full-on towards the table when you need confidence and authority.
  • Sit at an angle when you are seeking collaboration or to avoid confrontation.

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7. Head and face

There are limited ways the head can move on its axis: forward and backward, chin up and down, leaning right or left, and rotating right and left (and combinations of the three) – and all indicate certain thought processes or reactions.

  • Keeping your head position generally straight (although not rigid), rather than leaning it sharply to the right or left, indicates greater confidence and authority.
  • A chin down head position indicates either submission or displeasure.
  • When in a social situation, the leaning head position, in which the head is leaning sharply to the side, gives the impression of softness.
  • Communication works best when we really engage with others, letting our faces reflect appropriate animation and expressions, both while speaking and listening.

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8. Eye contact

It’s vital to make good eye contact whenever possible if you want to connect with people. Good eye contact in the Western world usually means meeting someone’s eyes for a period of a few seconds at a time, and breaking eye contact only for a second or two before looking back.

  • Do you hold eye contact for too long?
  • Do you avoid contact?
  • Do you turn away when you are thinking?
  • Do you close your eyes when thinking?
  • Do you hide behind papers, especially in meetings?

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9. Energy and movement

Energy in communication begins with mental attitude and focus, the same as other aspects of nonverbal communication.

  • Avoid speaking too fast or too slowly.
  • Walking with purpose and a ‘spring in your step’ projects positive energy and confidence.
  • Look around and interact somewhat with people as you walk.
  • When gesturing for emphasis, use definite gestures.
  • Wider (although not uncontrolled) arm movements and open palms suggest greater power and confidence than small, repressed movements.
  • Gesturing with open hands helps the speaker appear more sincere.
  • Ensure your gestures and body language are open, rather than closed.

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10. Use of space

Communication research indicates the approximate personal space zones are as follows for the Western world (varying slightly from person to person):

  • The public zone – 12 feet and over
  • The social zone – 4 to 12 feet
  • The personal zone – 1½ to 4 feet
  • The intimate zone – up to 1½ feet.

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11. Hands and arms

In synergology, the idea is that ‘the hands are the visible part of the brain’. Hands which are more relaxed and open indicate a more open mental attitude towards communication at that moment. Closed hands indicate the opposite.

  • Folding your arms in front may signify that you are either physically cold or emotionally uncomfortable.
  • If someone else is closed in this way, try to put them at their ease.
  • When shaking hands, stand an acceptable distance away from the other person and, with the hand held with palm open and vertical, grasp the hand of the other person firmly, while meeting their eyes and smiling (as appropriate).
  • Nervous reactions, such as clammy hands, indicate that your inner confidence needs bolstering.

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12. Feet and legs

The positioning and crossing of legs is related to the environment, as well as to those present.

  • If two people are intensely or genuinely involved in a conversation with each other and they do not want others to join them, they will cross their legs towards each other.
  • If one person is interested and the other ‘not so much’, the interested party will cross his or her leg towards the other person, and that person will cross their legs away.
  • People who are ready to leave a meeting will be more likely to cross their legs so that their foot is pointing toward the exit.

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13. Objects in communication

Be aware of how you handle objects while communicating with other people.

  • Nervous, unconscious fiddling or straightening movements become annoying and usually detract from the individual’s presence and seeming confidence.
  • Deliberate straightening of objects, especially those in another’s ‘territory’, is akin to invading someone’s space as a way to intimidate or show power.
  • Playing with spectacles is often a deliberate manoeuvre to gain time.
  • Standing with one’s hand on a chair back, or indeed leaning with one knee on a chair while talking with someone when standing, indicates a lack of self-assurance and/or confidence to engage without a barrier.

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14. Presentations

One of the times when people are most noticed in business is when they are required to make a presentation.

  • If you want to feel good, act like you feel good.
  • Walk and/or sit tall, with shoulders and head back.
  • Walk at a brisk pace – don’t just amble along. You may feel relaxed, but it will not get you energised. It also doesn’t look energised!
  • Smile a lot – smiling is known to make the person who is smiling, as well as the one smiled at, feel good – and remember to look people directly in the eyes when doing it!
  • Use gestures to help express/illustrate your messages and do so with purpose.

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15. Confidence and enthusiasm

Is an apparent lack of confidence and/or enthusiasm holding you back in your career?

  • Body language can’t solve the problem on its own – you need to become more proactive and change your mental attitude.
  • Develop good listening skills.
  • Face people and focus on them when in communication.
  • Make good eye contact.
  • Speak with animation.
  • Maintain a well-balanced posture.
  • Use definite gestures.
  • Walk energetically and purposefully.

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16. When things aren’t working well

Strategies for dealing with problem people or situations include

  • Maintain an open, curious attitude
  • Maintain open body language
  • Maintain a neutral, interested facial expression
  • Keep your questions open, to encourage the other party to talk
  • Address the underlying reasons rather than focusing on the objection.

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17. Detecting dishonesty

In synergology, studies have detected more than 100 signs possibly expressing an emotion that is masked or a lie, but none of these signals is sufficient in itself for you to be sure that someone is lying or masking the truth. It is necessary to see at least eight signs during a period of 10 seconds in order to be absolutely certain that a lie or an untruth is being told. Signs include

  • The person will look at you more with their right eye than with their left eye.
  • The eyebrows will be raised rather high.
  • They will stop blinking their eyes with the usual regularity.
  • The two sides of the face may appear more asymmetrical than usual, particularly in the area of the upper lips.

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18. Negative body language

Examples of negative body language include a slumped posture, plodding walk, too much or too little eye contact and a lack both of facial expression, when speaking or listening, and of gestures. In general, consider what kind of mental attitudes you could adopt as an overall strategy to ensure you display more positive, powerful, and/or authoritative body language continually, no matter the situation.

  • Focus on one or two things at a time.
  • Notice yourself or arrange to get (immediate) feedback from others.
  • Think of a body language habit you could develop that would serve you/be more positive and productive (and that would preclude the problem habit).

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