Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Common questions

  1. How exactly does someone’s body language reflect their inner thoughts and how much can be faked (in other words, how do you tell if someone is faking?)
  2. How much does body language really matter, anyway?
  3. What can I tell from someone else’s body language; what will they perceive about mine?
  4. If I change my body language, won’t my mental attitude stay the same anyway?
  5. What is a ‘good’ handshake?
  6. What do people mean, exactly, by ‘open’ body language?
  7. What do I need to watch out for in meetings?
  8. Isn’t it manipulative to change your body language to give a different impression of yourself?
  9. What is ‘matching’, ‘mirroring’ and ‘pacing’ in body language?
  10. What are the main things that make a positive impact in body language?

 

1. How exactly does someone’s body language reflect their inner thoughts and how much can be faked (in other words, how do you tell if someone is faking?)

Body language reflects one’s inner thoughts and/or attitudes either overtly and/or covertly. If Beth tells Tom ‘I am working on the Freedom account’ and Tom is happy for her, his verbal response and his body language will be congruent (in other words, they will match). If they then go on to discuss the subject further, Tom will be able to communicate freely because he is not trying to hide his real mental attitude.

If Tom is really not happy about this for some reason (say, he wanted that account for himself, or he knows something about the Freedom account that he wants to hide, or he has other negative thoughts or feelings on the topic), he can fake a reaction in his overt body language. However, subtle signs will begin to leak through. If he continues to discuss the subject positively when he is actually experiencing negative thoughts or reactions, his words, tone of voice and body language will start to become incongruent.

Some obvious signals can be controlled – Tom can refrain from folding his arms in front of himself, frowning, and raising or lowering his chin. He can paste an interested, positive expression on his face, but only to an extent. For example, he can smile and raise his eyebrows, perhaps open his eyes a little wider. He can nod in order to appear interested. However, the unconscious signals he would display, if the interest were not real, would give Beth the impression something was amiss. Unconscious signals to give Beth this impression (although unless she is trained in synergology she would not know the reasons why) could include Tom’s head, shoulder, arm and hand positions, movement of the hands, movement of the feet or legs, and facial expression. Even the size of the eyes change, depending on a person’s mental attitude towards another person or situation!

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2. How much does body language really matter, anyway?

Body language communicates important messages to others about who someone is and his or her mental attitude at a given moment. It therefore affects other people’s perceptions. Body language can indicate whether someone is either more confident or less confident, more interested or less interested, more powerful/authoritative or less so, more positive or less so, more energetic or less so.

How people perceive someone will in turn affect their mental attitudes towards that person and in fact their entire relationship with them. (It even determines whether there is a relationship with that person!) In the professional world, a person’s body language can affect the level of confidence senior management have in them to do certain types of job, most notably, jobs that represent the organisation and/or are responsible for generating and/or cultivating business.

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. They say things like ‘While Joe’s technical skills are excellent, he/she needs to project greater confidence and people skills before he/she can be considered for promotion.’

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3. What can I tell from someone else’s body language; what will they perceive about mine?

You can tell how comfortable, confident, positive, relaxed, interested and/or purposeful someone feels in a given moment (or, alternatively, how lacking in those qualities they may be feeling).

Being able to notice these things helps you to respond to them in the most positive, productive way under the circumstances.

For example, if Tom walks into his boss’s office and he/she is in the process of looking for a document with a worried expression and frantic movements, it is probably not the right time to initiate a discussion about that salary review.

You can often detect incongruence between someone’s words and their body language, which tells you there is something they are not saying and/or are hiding for some reason.

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4. If I change my body language, won’t my mental attitude stay the same anyway?

That depends. It is obvious that someone suffering from clinical depression cannot heal themselves by simply changing their body language. However, for most of us, under ordinary circumstances, whether we feel bad or feel good in a given moment is our choice!

Let’s say you are feeling a bit blue one day. You can choose to let yourself go, along with all the down-hearted body language that goes with this mental state (slumped shoulders, shuffling walk, hanging head, morose facial expression, lifeless eyes...). On the other hand, if you choose consciously to adopt a positive, energetic body language, such as a strong, confident physical stance, along with a smile, connecting with people and so on, then after some 5 to 10 minutes you will find that you don’t feel so blue!

Another everyday example of this effect that most of us can relate to is when we are feeling a bit down and lifeless, but go to the gym or for a run or walk anyway, feeling a ‘mental lift’ once we have been active for a few minutes!

However, it is always better to approach things from the standpoint of your inner attitude, since that drives everything about your feelings and your communication with others, including body language.

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5. What is a ‘good’ handshake?

The best, most comfortable handshake for both parties begins with standing an acceptable distance away from the other person; in other words, there should be about a 45-degree bend in the elbow of both parties. 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). Then let go in a relaxed, natural way. That’s it!

However, nervous reactions, such as clammy hands, are only symptoms that your inner confidence needs bolstering, so once again, the key is to work on your mental attitude and focus. Ask yourself, ‘What is making me feel nervous? What is it about this situation, or this person, that makes me doubt myself?’ By exploring the answers to these questions, you will find the key to leaving such reactions behind.

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6. What do people mean, exactly, by ‘open’ body language?

In the traditional sense, open body language means hands open, arms not crossed in front of the body or hidden behind a desk or oneself, and legs uncrossed.

In synergology, we have found that it is more helpful to notice the number of signs of openness as opposed to signs of closure. So, if someone has their arms folded in front of them, this does not necessarily mean they are closed to us, because they could be indicating openness in other ways.

In any case, do not be disturbed if you notice closed body language; try to ascertain whether the person is in fact closed to the communication by noticing clusters (of signs), congruence and context. If you focus successfully on drawing the person out in a positive way, you will soon notice more signs of openness than closure.

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7. What do I need to watch out for in meetings?

Lack of engagement in meetings is often an issue if you are not speaking and/or if a topic either doesn’t concern you or interest you. Remaining alert and attentive is important – otherwise it will be noted that you are not engaged and this could be perceived negatively by others.

Appearing uninterested and/or even bored does not help anyone.

Remain upright, as opposed to slouching back, and maintain eye contact with people at various points in the meeting (as opposed to keeping your eyes glued to the paper or table in front of you – or even worse, staring out the window!) in order to help yourself remain alert. This also helps you to avoid appearing uninterested, which would both rob you of impact and be seen as an insult to the others present.

To ensure your mental attitude is a productive one, ask yourself open questions about the topics or the people present ‘What does Mary have to gain or lose here?’ ‘How would I feel if I were Bob in this case?’ ‘What are they not addressing that it could be useful to know or do?’ You may find, as many have experienced, that maintaining focus in this way allows you to make a valuable contribution.

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8. Isn’t it manipulative to change your body language to give a different impression of yourself?

Most people associate the word ‘manipulation’ with negative and/or selfish intentions; however, this is not necessarily the meaning of the word. A physiotherapist, for example, manipulates muscles in order to make them feel better! Writers manipulate words in order to convey exactly what they want to say.

Intention is the determining factor. In choosing body language that is more open than closed, more confident than unconfident, more positive than negative – do you have bad intentions towards the other person? Do you want somehow to hurt or cheat them? Or, are you just looking to establish a good basis for building rapport, communicating well and establishing a good relationship?

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9. What are ‘matching’, ‘mirroring’ and ‘pacing’ in body language?

These things happen naturally when people are in rapport with each other.

Matching is when you adopt body language the same as or similar to the other party’s when you are in communication with them: for example, the speed at which someone is moving, the size of their gestures, the general position of their body and even their rate of breathing.

Mirroring is when you adopt an exact mirror image of someone’s body language when communicating. We do this all the time when we are in rapport and some people will do it on purpose, as a part of gaining rapport. If it is used correctly and with good intentions, this works well and no harm is done. However, it is far better to work on building rapport by showing genuine interest and engaging with people positively – then the rest comes naturally.

Pacing is using matching and mirroring to pace another person until rapport is established.

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10. What are the main things in body language that make a positive impact?

  • Have a good, positive and open mental attitude.
  • Good posture – well, you wouldn’t slump in your chair if the Queen were present, would you?
  • Don’t assume anything about the body language of the other person merely by observing one signal (such as folded arms) – instead, simply be aware of their body language and ensure you are asking good, open questions that guide the discussion in a positive direction.
  • Ensure you respect other people’s personal space; don’t stand or sit too close or, conversely, don’t introduce distance by standing or sitting too far away.

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