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How you express yourself nonverbally plays a major role in how others understand, relate to, and interact with you.
That is why it’s important to understand what body language is, why it’s important, and what you can do to minimize the chances of someone misunderstanding you!
Body Language, Defined
From the Oxford Living Dictionaries:
body language. noun. the process of communicating nonverbally through conscious or unconscious gestures and movements.
Many things make up communication between two people, including:
- What is said
- How something is said
- The person’s facial expression
- What the person is doing with their body (e.g., whether they’re crossing their arms, whether they’re facing the person to whom they’re speaking)
In short, body language is anything that is communicated without the person saying anything. An individual may not even be conscious of something they are communicating nonverbally.
Body Language: What’s So Important About It?
What you say is only part of your message — your listener picks up the rest based on your body language.
If your listener thinks that your body language matches what you are saying, they’re likely to trust what they are hearing. This match is sometimes referred to as your verbal-nonverbal alignment.
If your listener sees a discrepancy between what you’re saying verbally and nonverbally, they may be skeptical of what they’re hearing.
For example, if you are praising something verbally, but you have a scowl on your face, the listener could interpret this as you being dishonest (or at the very least, not candid).
It is important to realize that listeners take in all of your body language you are expressing, rather than focusing on a single movement or response.
Body Language Can Say More Than Words
You might be smiling, and you might be saying positive things, but if your fists are clenched and your back is rigid, this sends red flags to others.
Body language is important in that it says a lot, without you having had to say a word.
Learning about what we are (sometimes subconsciously) saying with our bodies is important when learning how to communicate clearly and effectively.
Video: Reading body language to speculate whether someone is lying is a popular idea. But this former CIA officer reveals why conclusions based on single actions can be misleading. How does she determine if someone is lying? Find out as you watch her question an actual employee suspected of fraud.
Body Language in the Workplace
Regardless of what your role is in the business world, being trustworthy and making it clear to others that you are trustworthy are important.
Did you know you can convey both without even saying a word?
5 Ways To Build Trust Nonverbally
According to Inc. Magazine, the following five ways helps you build trust with those you are working with using only nonverbal cues:
- Maintaining eye contact with the person to whom you’re speaking
- Maintaining good posture, which conveys confidence and authority. You can also lean in to indicate that you’re actively listening
- Smiling (but don’t fake it — people can usually detect fake smiles, which will convey they you are not trustworthy)
- Keeping your hands where they can be seen — people relax when they can see your hands. Avoid fiddling
- Mirroring the other person, to indicate that you empathize with them
Notice that these cues are the same actions taken by someone who is listening and is showing that they’re listening. This is important!
Body Language and Effective Leadership
It doesn’t matter whether you are in an official leadership role or not in the workplace — there will likely be a time when you are tasked with sharing ideas, bringing people aboard, and facilitating a project.
To do this effectively, you’ll need to inspire and positively impact people.
What’s a big part of this? You guessed it: body language.
We Are Constantly Monitored
Those who you will be working with will consciously — or subconsciously — evaluate your credibility, confidence, and trustworthiness.
Part of people’s evaluations of you comes from your presence or body language.
Body language during public presentations: Film director Michael Bay abruptly exited this Samsung press conference after wringing his hands, turning his back to the audience, and becoming flustered due to a malfunctioning teleprompter. If public speaking gives you a case of the nerves, consider getting free training from Toastmasters International. And have a plan for the unexpected.
They are listening and hearing what you say, but they see if what you do, the facial expressions you make, and so on, jives with what you said.
Most importantly, your verbal-nonverbal alignment should be perfect; if not, your listeners might become skeptical of what you are trying to implement.
Emotional Intelligence and Body Language
There’s a lot of talk about those with high emotional intelligence (EQ) and how they also tend to use body language effectively. When things get tense, they lean in, and when things are lighthearted, they lean back casually.
If you are not an EQ superstar, don’t fret. You can still learn how to communicate effectively, even nonverbally!
Body Language Tips and Examples
Now that we’ve talked about why body language is important, let’s take a look at some of the cues you should consider if you are looking to improve and have more control over what you say nonverbally.
Watch Your Hands
In highly-charged situations, like those involving the police, people are advised to keep their hands in plain sight.
This is a good rule for those in business too.
In addition to proving that you aren’t hiding anything, keeping your hands out in the open and your palms visible is a sign that you are not a threat and are approachable. This can help facilitate trust between you and your listener.
In addition to keeping your hands out in the open, pay attention to what you are doing with your hands or hand gestures. For example, your listener might interpret you fiddling with your hands or twiddling your thumbs as signs of boredom or impatience.
Finally, remember your handshakes! A solid handshake is trustworthiness personified.
Video: Much speculation has been made over U.S. President Donald Trump’s handshake styles — including the “shake-and-yank.” What’s the takeaway? Your handshake should spark confidence and predictability, not a concern.
. . . And While You’re At It, Watch Your Feet
Whenever you are trying to hide a verbal-nonverbal alignment discrepancy, there is a lot that you have to think about.
You have to moderate your tone of voice, watch your facial expressions, and maintain control over your body.
This is easier said than done. One of the places typically left unrehearsed are the feet.
What Do Our Feet Do Naturally?
Leadership consultant Dr. Carol Goman offers some examples: “Feet will fidget, shuffle, and wind around each other or around the furniture. Feet will stretch and curl to relieve tension, or even kick out in a miniaturized attempt to run away.”
These movements are thought to relieve the tension or impatience the individual may otherwise be trying to hide.
In general, fidgetiness with your feet, arms, and legs doesn’t look good.
A smile is one of the easiest ways to convey openness and friendliness but do not a fake smile.
At one point, researchers thought that a genuine smile might not be possible on command, but this isn’t always the case.
One of the dead giveaways for a fake smile is the “lack of crinkles” (or what we call smile lines) around the eyes. Granted, the presence of laugh lines isn’t a sure sign the smile is genuine, but the lack thereof is definitely a sign that the person isn’t thrilled.
Should You Mirror the Person You’re Talking To?
Showing agreeableness can be a good way to even the playing field, so to speak, even if you agree to disagree.
To do this, some suggest mirroring the expressions and the posture of the person to whom you are speaking. This is a way to signal that you are listening and that you understand what they are saying.
Connect Rather Than Copy
The goal is to foster a connection between the two parties.
When you are paying attention to the other person’s body language so that you can mirror it, pay attention to any negative body language that they might be displaying.
Controversy Over Mirroring — and Active Listening As An Alternative
But mirroring isn’t without controversy. Dr. Jeff Thompson, a researcher, and crisis communications expert notes that many people who mirror do so unconsciously.
Trying to intentionally mimic or mirror someone can “backfire” particularly when money is involved.
Instead, he suggests cultivating empathy and active listening skills can yield the same desired goals of increasing rapport and persuasiveness.
Practical Tips from Body Language Experts
Are there any reasons besides effective communication for paying attention to body language?
Video: Psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses research that shows that adopting “power poses” for a few minutes a day can change how you view yourself, and how others view you.
Positive Body Language Changes Your Attitude
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has pioneered the practice of using intentional physical actions to change your emotional states and break out of negative ruts. The goal is to free yourself up to take actions for your own success.
For example, a depressed person may move at a slow pace, breathe shallowly, hunch their shoulders, and hold their head down.
Robbins advises that you do the opposite as a way to break the hold of a mood on you.
The Importance of Intent
He also recommends adopting — for 2 minutes — strong stances like the “Wonder Woman” stance (feet planted firmly, hands on waist).
Robbins says that such intentional actions can help move you toward taking the most important actions on your goals.
Video: In this fascinating video, Tony Robbins shows how by consciously adopting certain body language you can influence how you feel about your own challenges in work and life.
Positive Body Language and Emotional Intelligence Are Intertwined
How you present yourself has a real effect on how others see you. One aspect of your presentation is (you guessed it) your body language.
By improving your body language, you can be sure that you are not having a negative, destructive effect on those around you. Your ability to communicate effectively is central to your emotional intelligence.
Body Language Myths
We’ve talked a lot about what we know, but what are some myths that we should be aware of? According to Joe Navarro, a body language expert and former FBI agent:
- We are not as good at spotting liars as we think we are. Research shows that most of us are no better at detecting deception than making a random guess. The behaviors that we associate with deception — like facial touching — are used by anyone who is antsy or nervous. It doesn’t indicate whether they are lying or not.
- Eye avoidance is not associated with deception. In fact, those who are habitual liars engage in more eye contact than usual, since they know what you’re expecting (more eye contact) and they’re willing to give it to you to make sure you buy their lie. Furthermore, there are a lot of cultural association with eye aversion — in some cultures, people are taught to look down when they’re in trouble to show repentance and humility.
Here are a few common Q&As on body language. If you have a question of your own, we invite you to share it in the comments section below.
Is it true that 93% of all communication is nonverbal?
No. The 93% number was put forth by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, who combined the statistical results of two studies (e.g., he combined the statistic that 55% of communication was in body language and 38% of communication was in the tone of voice). This is not accurate.
Researchers don’t have a precise number for how much of communication is nonverbal, but in the end, it isn’t super helpful to know if its 65%/35% or 75%/25% or even 50%/50%. Nonverbal communication is vital in any of those cases.
Is body language really more important than verbal expression?
Maybe. As we indicated above, there aren’t hard numbers agreed upon by researchers on how important one is compared to the other. However, there are some that say that what is spoken is more important.
Shrugs, eye rolls, and other cues by people are important, but they are “partial messages,” unlike the “whole messages” of verbal communication.
Regardless of how important you think nonverbal communication is when compared to verbal communication, we can all agree that both are key components of communication.
To ensure that we are communicating effectively, our skills in both should be dialed in. We should speak clearly, but we should also demonstrate with our bodies that what we are saying can be trusted.
Contributing Editor: Sherrie Gossett