by Emad Elias, MBA, PMP
Is this man lying? Yes! Most of us are born with an ability to be incredibly intuitive about facial expressions and body language as a basic survival instinct. As we learn to defend ourselves, this ability gradually erodes. Can we “reawaken” this ability?
In January, 1998, President Bill Clinton gave his State of the Union address. For those of us that either have an inherent ability to “read people” or have developed it, it was clear that Bill Clinton was not being honest in the latter days of his presidency. A quote from the New York Post: “President Clinton stuck his chin out, flared his nostrils and blinked a mile a minute — signs he was a little sorry, a little angry and terribly nervous body language experts said last night.”
According to Patti Wood, a body language expert, feelings, emotions, and decisions are generated by tone of voice and the timing of words as they follow specific gestures. As Barak Obama speaks, it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying because the cadence and rhythm of his voice create good feelings similar to the way a song you like can make you get up and dance.
Why Body Language is Important
Most of us ask ourselves these two questions to account for 80-90% of how we evaluate others: “Do I like this person?” and “Do I respect this person?” According to Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist), nonverbals and body language may have a bigger influence than what’s actually being said. If you put in perspective that many of us do not often question our self-image, and probably have an idealized view of ourselves, it makes sense that we may be consistently giving signals that are not necessarily intended to be communicated.
Your Body Speaks for You in Meetings
Meetings are a large part of nearly every job. Charalambos Vlachoutsicos, an Adjunct Professor at Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece, suggests we consider asking ourselves the following questions before our next meeting:
- When did I last eat? Physical conditions have a powerful impact on one’s emotional and physical state, and on the body language colleagues will be watching. If you haven’t eaten for several hours, do so. Make sure you’ve visited the toilet recently. Be careful about having that extra cup of coffee just before an important meeting.
- Do I have issues with anyone I’m meeting? Suppose you are irritated with a particular subordinate. Your irritation could come through in the way you talk or position your body in relation to her (are you closed off, are your arms folded?), which could well inhibit her from making a useful contribution. Before going into a meeting, note the issues and feelings you have with the people with whom you will be engaging.
- Am I prepared? If you aren’t prepared for a meeting you’ll have to rely on winging it. In that case you will concentrate on making sure you keep up with the discussion and don’t show your ignorance. People who aren’t well prepared end up compensating by taking a lot of airtime to make others think that they are well informed. So, whatever body language faults they have get amplified. What’s more, they are unlikely to think about their body language if they are concentrating on winging it. So if you’re not prepared it’s better to postpone a meeting until you are or admit that you are not. If you can’t or won’t do either of these, the best thing is to keep quiet and make sure you’re better prepared the next time.
- Am I fidgeting? If you’re fairly still and listening then all is probably well. But if you’re shifting about in your chair, drumming your fingers, doodling or, worst of all looking at your phone (Statistic: Of working professionals with a salary of more than $30K, during meetings, 86% think it’s inappropriate to answer phone calls, and 84% think it’s inappropriate to write texts or emails), then you can be pretty sure that the person talking is likely to be feeling that you’re not interested in what they have to say. Is your pose attentive or are you leaning back with arms folded, indicating impatience or withdrawn skepticism? Smiling helps many people stay calm and attentive.
- Am I interrupting? In any healthy debate people will occasionally interrupt. But if you do it a lot, people may feel that you’re not open and not listening carefully to what they are saying — or indeed that you’re overcompensating for your ignorance. Asking yourself if you’re interrupting too much also leads naturally thinking about how you are communicating with your body, expressions, and gestures: are you acknowledging the other people, are you smiling at them or looking angry?
Some Tips to Project Confidence and Improve Engagement
We all have so much on our minds these days. If you’re particularly distracted, and have already practiced a technique to focus your attention, such as taking a few deep breaths or physically moving around for a few minutes, here’s what you can do to projecting confidence:
- Assume the Superman position – do not fold your arms across your body but instead keep them at your side or on your hips
- Control Your Hands – Hand gestures come naturally to most of us, and they help us emphasize important points. To avoid flailing when a discussion heats up, keep your hands between your shoulders and your waist. Touching your face, neck or hair are also weak moves
- Keep Your Head Level – While a tilted head can express interest in a personal conversation, it can come off as a sign of acquiescence
- Keep eyes on your audience – Make eye contact with other people in the room, and read their signals. If you catch them using their phones or computers, do something slightly unexpected, like changing your voice level or tempo or asking a question
Evans Incorporated coaches leaders to be effective, not with techniques or systems, but rather with old fashioned and genuine collaboration through honesty, integrity and structured communications. Change Management can be extremely valuable as all of us strive to improve our communities through carefully considered and planned infrastructures, even to the point of how our body speaks for us.