What is Body Language?
Before we dive into the nuances of body language, let’s first define it. So, what is body language? Body language is the unspoken element of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and emotions to the world around us.
But let us give a more relatable example: Imagine a friend is telling a funny story and it is the smile on your face that acts as a visual cue to your friend that you are enjoying listening to the story as much as he is enjoying telling it. That would be an example of positive body language. It is not limited to facial expressions though; it could be something as simple as a ’tilt of the head’ or the ‘position’ in which you sit and stand, or ‘hand gestures’. Did you know that according to a 1981 study by body language expert Albert Mehrabian, words, body language, and tone of voice account for 7%, 55%, and 38% of effective communication? In other words, only 7% of a message is conveyed through words! Yes, you read that right! The remaining 93% comes from non-verbal communication. There is an entire field of study called kinesics devoted to understanding non-verbal communication. And very often for that reason body language is often thought of as complex and difficult but it doesn’t have to be. But before we decode non-verbal communication for you, let’s first see why body language is so important.
Why Is Body Language Important?
Now that you know what body language is and the role it plays in communication, it’s time to dig in a little deeper to see its importance in our lives. In a lot of instances, what comes out of our mouths and what we communicate through our body language might be entirely different things. And when then happens, your listener might think that your intentions are dishonest but in reality, you don’t even have that realization until it’s too late.
Your non-verbal communication cues— the way you listen, the way you look, move and react to someone/something tell the person you are communicating with whether you are being honest, how actively you are listening, etc. And when your non-verbal communication cues align perfectly with your words, it increases trust, allowing you to build rapport in no time. And when the opposite is true, it can create mistrust and confusion, as you can well imagine.
Edward G. Werheim PhD, in his book, The Importance of Effective Communication discusses the roles non-verbal communication can play:
- Repetition: It repeats and often strengthens the message you are trying to verbally communicate
- Contradiction: It can contradict the message you are trying to convey, thereby indicating to your listener that you may not be telling the truth
- Substitution: It can substitute for a verbal message. For example, your facial expression can convey a message far more vividly than your words ever can
- Complementing: It may complement or accentuate your verbal message. If you pat your employee on the back, in addition to telling them that they are doing excellent work, your message is likely to be more effective.
- Accenting: Actions that might accent or underline the message. Pounding a table would be an example of accenting.
Now. Let’s move from the roles non-verbal communication can play to the different types of non-verbal communication:
Facial Expressions: We all know the adage: “The first impression is the last impression.” If that is, indeed, true then it’s your facial expressions that convey the first impression, long before you have had a chance to utter a word. And for that reason, facial expressions are considered the most important visual non-verbal cue. It can complement the message being conveyed. For example, if you are smiling while congratulating someone, it sends the signal that you are happy for them. But negative facial expressions can send contradictory messages too. Let’s say you are having a bad day at work and a coworker approaches you and asks you: “How’s your day going?” And you say, with a scowl, that you are doing fine, then that can create doubts in your coworkers’ minds. Here are a few body language tips that will allow you to create a good first impression, every single time.
- Have an open posture: You should be relaxed, but you should not slouch! Sit or stand upright with your hands by your side and always, always avoid standing with your hands on your hips (this can suggest that you are looking to domineer)
- Use a firm handshake: The handshake should be firm, but please don’t overdo it. You don’t want the handshake to be aggressive and/or painful
- Maintain eye contact: Locking another person’s gaze for a couple of seconds (but not too long, then it can become a stare!) signals to them that you are sincere and engaged. Remember that if you look into someone’s eyes for a long time, it can make people uncomfortable or even convey that you are lying.
- Avoid touching your face: A lot of times, touching your face, especially when you are trying to answer questions, can be interpreted as a sign of dishonesty. That is not true universally, but remember we are trying to create a positive first impression? So, a good rule of thumb is to avoid touching your face or fiddling your hair to signal trustworthiness.
Body posture: The way you sit can say a lot about your personality type. It shows confidence if you are sitting erect; it shows you are insecure if you have crossed your legs; it shows you are secure if you are crossing your ankles; it shows you are confident if you are sitting in the center of the couch; it shows you are angry if you are crossing arms; it shows you are comfortable if you are sitting cross-legged; it shows you are closed-minded if you are keeping your hands on your lap; it shows you are aggressive if you are kneeling; it again shows you are insecure if you are crossing your wrists and it shows you are judgmental if you are leaning back on your palm.
Gesture (Posture, position, and movement): Much like your facial expressions, one of the first things anyone notices about you is posture, so you should always stand facing another person (showing your back signals disrespect). There is a lot that can be gleaned from where you are standing in the room. If you are not standing toward the center of the room, for example, it shows you are indifferent toward the other person. Some positions you must avoid are ‘hands in pockets’ and ‘hands-on the hips’.
We know you must be thinking that we have been talking about how not to stand, but we haven’t talked about how you should stand. Don’t fret because that is what we are going to talk about next:
A normal posture is just keeping your hands relaxed by your side. Hand and arm movements are the biggest movements audience can see. There are three kinds of hand movements:
- Give: shows options (keeping your hands open)
- Show: just like showcasing
- Chop: (keeping hands in the same manner as we have when chopping vegetables). Chop gestures indicate a stronger opinion either using one hand or both.
Note: Do remember that to give a coherent message, your hand movements must correspond to your verbal message. And this would serve as a nice segue into our next point about the vocal part of non-verbal communication.
Vocal: Another great indicator could be tone, volume, and pace of speech (note that this is different from verbal communication). The right emphasis on a particular word could radically change the message you are trying to convey.
Consider the following sentence: “I didn’t say you did that on purpose”. Now, consider the same sentence but with different emphasis (the emphasized word(s) is in parathesis):
- (I) didn’t say you did that on purpose
- I (didn’t) say you did that on purpose
- I didn’t (say) you did that on purpose
- I didn’t say (you) did that on purpose
- I didn’t say you (did) that on purpose
- I didn’t say you did (that) on purpose
- I didn’t say you did that (on purpose)
Did you notice how the entire complexion of the sentence is changed just because you emphasized a different word, while the original sentence is the same?
Mirroring: Pay very close attention to this one. If someone mirrors your body language, it means you have been successful in convincing them of your message. In the same way that you smile if someone smiles to signal approval. Mirroring could be done with gestures (like a nod of the head), tone of voice, and even the angles in which you are standing/sitting. Mirroring happens spontaneously since it is a person’s subconscious response.
Palm Movements: According to a survey, if you keep your palm up, 84% of people comply, and it drops to 52% if you keep your palm down and if you are only pointing with your finger, only 28% of the people comply (using the finger is considered a sign of arrogance).
Handshakes: Building on hand movements (Point #3), let’s move on to handshakes. Handshakes can say a lot about a person. There are many kinds of handshakes, some of which are mentioned below:
- Hard (domineering or powerful)
- Light (not interested)
- Rushed (unconcerned)
- Lingering (desperate)
- Intense glare (aggressive)
And you should be aiming for none of the above. The perfect handshake is one with normal eye contact and touching the other person’s palm with their thumb around your palm.
How can you improve your body language?
We have no doubt that you understand the importance of body language quite well now, but the question remains, “How can I improve my body language?” And as with any skill, the keys are practice and patience. Non-verbal communication, especially, is a back-and-forth flow that requires you to be constantly present. If you are checking your phone or thinking about something else, then you are almost certain to miss non-verbal cues and not completely understand the nuances of what is being communicated. The key to being fully present is to manage stress and develop your emotional awareness.
Managing stress: You can’t trust your reading of other people when you are stressed. It’s not just that, you, yourself, tend to send confusing, or worse, off-putting signals. And you do not want your stress to rub off on others (that’s a recipe for disaster). If you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s always a good idea to take a moment to calm yourself. Once you feel centered, you will be better equipped to deal with the situation.
Develop emotional awareness: Practicing mindfulness meditation allows you to be in touch with your emotions, enhancing your emotional awareness. This is critical since being emotionally aware enables you to:
- Read other people accurately (including the unspoken emotions they are communicating)
- Foster trust in relationships by sending the right non-verbal signals
- Send the signal that you empathize with people you are communicating with
We know that this must have been a lot to take in, but the crux of the matter is that we can use body language to our advantage. On the flip side, if we don’t concentrate on what our bodies are doing, we are inviting people to pay attention only to our body language.
In conclusion, using the right body language is at least as important as using the right words! So, go stand in front of the mirror and practice different aspects of body language that we have discussed in this article. appreciate the good movements, recognize and accept the flaws so that you can work on them before you go into your big meeting! We wish you good luck!