It’s amazing how just one gesture, or a certain posture, can overpower actual words. When you’re not aware of your body language and what it’s saying, you can make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Like the “close talker” character on Seinfeld who didn’t quite grasp the concept of “personal space.”
What we’ve learned in this series on body language is that whether we realize it or not, we communicate with more than just words: our eyes, our gestures, our posture, and the way we stand can all send a message as well. The goal is to make sure you’re sending the right message. Here are some tips to improve your body language:
- Eye contact is crucial. Always face the person you are speaking with and make frequent eye contact - but don't go overboard. Eye contact is not a constant, unblinking stare...that’s just creepy.
- Rid yourself of distracting mannerisms. Habits such as finger-tapping, fiddling with coins or jewelry, or adjusting hair or clothing can be serious communication blocks. If you're fiddling with something or engaging in other distracting mannerisms, you're sending the message that what the other person is saying is not important – even if that’s not your intention. Pinpoint what your habits are and focus on eliminating them. If you'd really like to identify some of you bad habits (we all have them!), set up a camera and film yourself communicating...then watch it with a critical eye. How does your voice, your facial expressions, your body language, the words you choose, convey what you're feeling?
- Pay attention to proximity. The physical distance that separates you from the other person is important. If you are far away or standing behind a desk, you are sending the message that you are inaccessible and unapproachable - this keeps things rigid and formal. Standing too close, however, will make the person feel uncomfortable. In North America, the ideal distance when speaking to others (besides those with whom you are really close) is 3 feet.
- Watch your posture. Sitting or standing straight not only makes you look confident, you also appear attentive and eager. Could you just imagine what would happen if, during presidential addresses, the president slouched in his chair? That would send a pretty bad message.
- Mirror the other person. Within reason, try to maintain the same facial expressions and posture. So if the other person is sitting, sit too. If the other person crosses their legs, do the same. What this says is,” We are the same. We are on the same page. I am in agreement with you.” Just don’t make it obvious that you’re copying the other person’s demeanor.
- Your voice doesn’t need to be loud to be powerful. Oftentimes, it’s not the loudest person in the room who is listened to...who is truly listened to. It’s the person who speaks firmly, at a regular pace, and with a quiet confidence. To really understand this, listen to speeches from Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr.
- Resist the temptation to cross your arms. There are so many negative emotions that crossed arms can convey: hostility, defensiveness, discomfort, nervousness, and insecurity. I actually find it comfortable to lean back in a chair and cross my arms. I use this posture when I’m thinking, but I wouldn’t use it when talking to someone of authority or to a client, because I know the kind of message that it can send.
- Use the power of a nod. Imagine you’re talking to two people at the same time. Although equally attentive, the first person nods his or her head regularly during your speech, while the other doesn’t move his or her head at all. How would you feel about each of these people? Chances are you’d feel more of a connection with the first person...and wonder whether you’ve said something offensive (or boring) to the other. Offering the occasional nod doesn’t necessarily mean you’re agreeing, but it does say, “Yes, I understand what you’re trying to convey.” Nodding lets a speaker know that you’re paying attention.
- Watch your facial expressions, especially in emotionally-charged situations. If a person is saying something you disagree with, don’t roll your eyes, flare your nostrils, sneer, or make any derisive facial expression. It will put the other person on the defensive (or even offensive) and potentially turn a discussion into an argument. Keep your facial expression more neutral, and if you disagree, use your words, rather than a mocking face, to convey your point,
- To touch or not to touch. Handshakes aside, the appropriateness of touching someone in a business setting is, well, touchy - especially with members of the opposite sex. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Any gesture you would use on your spouse or children should not be used on a colleague, client, employee, or boss. Even if you’re trying to console someone, use the power of well-meaning words. However, you can still use body language communication like leaning in, eye contact, and nodding, to let the person know you are being attentive. It’s important to point out that there are cultural differences, however. Even among strangers, in some parts of Europe cheek-kissing (on the face that is) or hugging are considered appropriate ways to greet someone and show your respect.
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