Body Language / Non-verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication, also known as body language can account for over 90% of your communication. Yup – you are likely saying more with every action you make than you are with every word you speak. Therefore, understanding how people interpret body language will help you share your message – and will also help you ‘read’ what other people may be thinking / feeling.

Lets start looking at how we use body language by starting at the top of our body… or more specifically, your face.

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Benedict Cumberbatch

Your Face:

Making eye contact is usually great and often demonstrates you are engaged and interested in your conversation. But too much eye contact may come across as staring and can be threatening. In addition, it’s generally accepted that if you don’t make ‘good’ eye contact or frequently look away you may be feeling uncomfortable with the person or the subject; in addition you may be feeling the person you are speaking with is lying.

Smiling during a conversation often means you like what you are hearing, saying or doing. But, if you are frowning you may be stressed, uncertain or do not agree. Be careful with your facial expressions; for example, when I’m in deep thought I naturally frown (many people do). Because I know I frown I try to change my behavior – especially when I’m in meetings with clients.

Your Hands:

Your hands deserve their own section. Your hand are a natural part of how you share information and interact with your environment. The added bonus is that when you use your hands you are entertaining your listeners (keeping their attention), and giving them visual cues to help them remember what you are saying.

Steepled fingers (or Steepling), is a non-verbal cue often used by actor Benedict Cumberbatch as he represented the fictional private detective Sherlock Holmes. Steepling is also a favorite of professional speakers and politicians. Steepled fingers (either with fingertips touching and pointed up or fingers crisscrossed), demonstrates you are confident and can give the impression of authority and knowledge. Steepled fingers can also be a sign that demonstrates you are listening and quite interested.

Using one finger to point at someone is often interpreted as offensive – especially if you are communicating with someone you don’t know or who may be ‘sensitive’. For me – using one finger to point at me is like saying “Let me tell you,” which immediately gets my back up. My recommendation is that if you want to point at someone or something then use an open-hand with your palm facing up; that is an accepting gesture. The bonus of an open hand is that when we show our palms, people interpret what we are sharing as being honest.

Use head or hand movements to help express an idea or meaning.

Clenched hands often mean you’re feeling anxious and negative and are holding back your emotions (or you may be freezing and need the air conditioning turned down). Similarly holding your wrists behind your back all about self-control.

Shaking hands (handshaking), is one of the most common ways we share nonverbal communication. When you shake hands I recommend looking the person in the eyes (but don’t stare). Do you have a strong grip (confidence) – or perhaps a soft grip (shyness or a lack of confidence)? When your handshake is vertical with both parties shaking with equal pressure, the mood is set for a positive rapport. If you have ever turned someones hand to face upwards you are demonstrating dominance – forcibly stripping away their power or authority. In a similar way, a crushing handshake can identify dominance – or it might be that you are overcompensating.

Standing & Your Arms:

Most of us know that if you sit with your arms crossed and/or are slightly turned away you may be feeling skeptical, angry, unhappy, bored or closed to new information… or you may simply be sitting that way because it is comfortable or because you are cold. It’s important to note that sitting with your arms crossed is one of the most misinterpreted body language cues. My recommendation is to try to avoid crossing your arms and creating misunderstanding – especially when sharing information with people you don’t know or who are important to your success.

Similar to good eye contact is leaning forward. If you are leaning forward you are likely feeling engaged and interested. If you are in negotiations you may be giving a clue that you are ready to agree or to buy. Alternatively, if you are slouched or leaning back in your chair, your non-verbal communication may be interpreted as closed, bored or unhappy.

Especially when standing many people don’t know what to do with their hands and arms.

Standing in a fig-leaf pose covering your groin strips away your own authority or suggests you are not confident or are afraid. Alternatively, standing with your hands behind your back can demonstrate you are patient, ready and likely waiting. But… because standing with your hands behind your back is also a common military posture some people can interpret this position as threatening. If you don’t know what to do with your hands, the best thing you can do is to get comfortable with your hands resting by your sides.

Standing with your hands in your pockets, thumbs showing or thumbs tucked into your waistband can say, “I’m not moving or negotiating.” It may also say, “I’m better than you / this place.”

Cultures:

While I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, be mindful that different cultures have different non-verbal / body language cues. They may be different but they are equally important to how we and they interpret information. If you are working with people from different cultures (and most of us are), I recommend getting familiar with body language behaviors unique to other cultures.

Conclusion:

Picking up on non-verbal cues can create opportunities for you.

Being able to recognize your – and other peoples body language helps you make an informed decisions or take informed actions. It’s always best to be making the impression you want – willingly – purposefully.

Happy communicating, mentoring, motivating… and training.

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