Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

The body/mind connection

One of the first things to realise about body language is that the mind and body exist and operate as one. ‘Well of course,’ you might be thinking. But look beyond the obvious. Whatever your mind is thinking about or whatever you are feeling will be reflected in your body language, 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.

Exercise is a good example. Let’s say you are feeling down. Usually the last thing you feel like doing is strenuous exercise. If, however, you were to drag yourself out of the house to go running, dancing, swimming or play tennis, after a few minutes of coordinated, active movement your mental attitude will have begun to change! This is a very simple example of how the mind responds to the movements of the body.

Try it! If you wake up feeling down or demotivated, uninterested in the day ahead, change your body language from having a disenchanted facial expression, slumped shoulders and shuffling walk to smiling at people, meeting their eyes, and walking with a straight, strong posture and energetic stride. Sometimes it’s not easy, but within five minutes or so you will no longer feel as if life is such a struggle, and your mind will begin to turn to more positive, purposeful thoughts. This is simply a result of the mind/body connection and how it can work both ways!

It’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to feel depressed when you are standing up straight, smiling, with shoulders back, head high and breathing properly. Likewise, if you put your body into the kind of stance that a depressed, sad or demotivated person might use, such as back and shoulders slumped, head and eyes downcast, and mouth drooping, you will find it is impossible to feel confident and empowered!

Incongruence

To make the most of body language, first of all we need to be able to identify more of the signals that people are communicating (not to mention the ones we are sending).

Very often a person’s body language is incongruent with what he or she is saying. Non-verbal communications – such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice – communicate just as much as words, and sometimes more. It is often the little things that compromise success – for example, good eye contact and a confident yet respectful demeanour are immensely important.

Imagine someone in a service role asking a customer ‘Can I help you?’ with different combinations of body language. Consider the wide range of messages, ranging from boredom, condescension or lack of interest through to genuine interest, care and enthusiasm that this one question can communicate – depending not only on vocal tone, but on facial expression, head position, hand and arm positioning and so on.

Key tip

You can only control your conscious gestures and expressions for a limited period of time; the real mental attitude is visible on a subliminal level anyway, at all times. On this basis, addressing body language is only effective, ultimately, when the appropriate mental attitude or state is developed and maintained at the same time.

The link between thought, body language and voice

In the same way that thought drives nonverbal behaviour, it also affects the voice. In communication, the voice is almost as important as the impact of body language. A hesitant tone of voice, a nervous stammer, trailing off at the end of a sentence, false cheer, condescension, a confiding tone... these are all clearly detected, even over the telephone, when there are no nonverbal signals to observe. On this basis, it is important for you never to dissociate the mind/voice/body connection although, for the purposes of focus, we are concentrating on body language here. It is for this reason that, when giving situation examples in this section, we also put the voice dimension into context along with body language.

For more on voice, see the topic on Voice Skills.