Translating Body Language
Your body is not always your friend when it comes to communication. It has a mind of its own, so to speak — or rather, escapes the influence of your mind, which is busy regulating the words that leave your mouth. Your body doesn't always tell the same story as your words. Maybe your eyes wander to the computer screen rather than remaining focused on the person in front of you. Your arms cross, and your foot starts to jiggle.
Your words say, “You did a great job with the presentation. I've had phone calls from several people saying how much they enjoyed it.” But your body's sending very different signals: “Man, is she ever going to leave? There's that e-mail from Juanita I've been waiting for, I have a conference call in ten minutes, and Sal wants that preliminary budget from me by four. And now my stomach's growling!”
Meanwhile, there's poor Alice pouring her angst all over your desk, eager to hear that she's doing a great job — and while that's what you're saying, she's not buying it because your body language is sending such different signals. Which message would you heed if you were sitting in Alice's chair?
What is body language?
Body language is the unspoken messages that a person's posture and gestures convey. Crossing your arms, twirling your hair, licking your lips, and slouching are examples of negative body language; shaking hands firmly, making eye contact, sitting up straight, and smiling are examples of positive body language. More importantly, body language reflects what we think of as subconscious messages, the content of communication that escapes the intellect's control and manipulation.
Most people can greatly improve the consistency between their words and their body language by paying more attention to what their bodies are doing when they're speaking. Here are a few tips:
Maintain eye contact with the person to whom you're talking. It's okay to look away now and then; you don't want to create the impression that this is a stare-down.
Open your posture. Let your arms rest on the arms of your chair if you're seated, and let them hang naturally at your sides when you're standing. Practice these postures in front of a mirror to become comfortable with them.
Sitting directly across from someone can feel confrontational, especially if you are behind a desk or at a table. Unless there is a reason for you to maintain an image of power (and sometimes there is), sit beside the person instead.
Don't sigh, play with your hair (including mustache and beard), jewelry, or pens and pencils. Don't practice your origami skills with pieces of paper you find on your desk, or craft paperclip sculptures. Such actions are distracting for the other person as well as for you. Any train of thought is likely to leave without you if you're concentrating on how to transform a memo into a swan.