Despite the amount of attention directed to numbers, schedules, and plans, the most important aspect of business is the interaction among people. It is during face-to-face interaction with other people where deals are made, when plans are formulated, how ideas become products or services and how they are bought and sold. Moreover, the essential component of interaction among people is communication. In other words, transmitting and receiving information, ideas, hopes, plans, and conclusions are the underlying transactions of business.
A lot of time and effort is spent training salespeople on how to make sales calls, for instructing executives on how to make public speeches, or training managers on how to give a performance review to an employee – and, in most cases, the emphasis is on what to say and how to say it. However, research shows that more than 70% of communication is nonverbal, and most of this communication is nonverbal signals or, what is commonly known as, body language.
Most people know something about body language. For instance, everyone knows that when an individual has their arms crossed over their chest, it indicates defensiveness and a closed position – unless that person is just cold. Body language is a vital part of interpersonal communication and becoming aware of what is being “said” by your body language and/or another person’s body language will allow you to become more effective in the most critical transaction in business: effective communication.
So how do you become competent at reading body language or more effectively managing your own? Let’s start with the first and most crucial element of body language – the eyes.
We have all heard the saying, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” In regard to body language, the eyes are the first indicator of how a person is responding. If someone is interested in you or what you are saying, their eyes will be in direct contact with yours. According to researchers, not only will their eyes look directly at you, but their pupils will also dilate, or become larger, if they are interested in what you are saying. In fact, people will look at what interests them more directly and for longer periods of time than what is of little to no interest to them. This is automatic and rarely is anyone aware they are doing it. If you are trying to establish a rapport with someone, direct eye contact 60-70% of the time will be an essential aid in creating the trusting relationship you are seeking.
The eyes convey other information as well. If a person is looking to the left when they are speaking, it usually indicates they are remembering something. If they are looking to the right, they are resorting to using their imagination. Looking directly ahead indicates interest. Combined with frequent blinking, the message conveys, “This is interesting.” Infrequent blinking or staring can signal boredom, disbelief or concentration, depending on the conversation. Rolling of the eyes indicates dismissal or frustration. Recent research by psychiatrists reveals that when teenagers roll their eyes, they are expressing frustration and attempting to exercise control over what is happening around them.
In the end, the eyes are key indicators of what is happening around you. Combined with other body language signals, they can tell you a lot about how a conversation is going. Next time you are talking with someone, make a point to watch their eyes. You may be surprised by what you discover.
The Face and Head:
After the eyes, the face communicates the most nonverbal information. This is no surprise and it is where most people’s attention is focused during a conversation. A genuine smile, with the corners of the mouth turned up, will also cause a slight crinkling of the eyes. This is a good thing. However, a smile in which only the mouth is affected conveys, “I am smiling, but I don’t mean it.” A great example of this effect can readily be seen in politicians or celebrities on television. These people have been trained to “smile,” but when the smiles are not genuine, many people can see them for what they are – a phony façade. When you become aware of this, you immediately begin to lose trust in a person.
A mouth turned down at the corners, or what everyone recognizes as a frown, is a clear signal of disapproval or disappointment. Biting the lips is a sign of indecision or insecurity. Likewise, chewing on a pencil or repeatedly touching the mouth can also indicate hesitancy.
A furrowed brow, usually accompanied by a squinting of the eyes, communicates, “I’m not buying what you are saying.” A face pointed down, that is, not looking at you, is telling you that the person does not want to hear what you have to say.
The head position and movements will also convey a great deal of information. A nodding head is widely recognized as an agreement with what you are saying, whereas a shaking head indicates disagreement. If the head is tilted to the side, the message is generally, “I’m thinking about it.” If the head is held high, the person is conveying confidence, and if the head is tilted forward, then the message becomes, “I’m interested.” Most people know about these body language signals through everyday life, but there is so much more to understand.
Posture and the Torso:
Posture often communicates strong messages. A person standing or sitting erect communicates a powerful presence and confidence in himself or herself. You can rest assured that a conversation with this person will be a true discussion. Likewise, slouching can also suggest several different things. For example, it can convey, “I am not interested in this,” or, “I am trying to make myself invisible, so you do not want to talk with me.” Thus, posture can say a lot about a person’s attitude. Encountering a slouching person usually makes another person uncomfortable with the conversation and generally leads to an abrupt end of the interaction.
When the other person is genuinely interested in you, they will “point” their torso at you. That is, they will “square up” their body position with yours. If they are not interested, they will twist their torso so that it points in a different direction. If that direction is towards a door, they are signaling they want to get out of the room and away from you.
If a person is leaning towards you with their shoulders forward from the rest of their torso, they are communicating interest in what you are saying. If they lean back and create more distance between you, they are likely not in agreement or are trying to “get away” from what you are saying.
The Arms and Hands:
As noted above, crossed arms generally indicate defensiveness or a closed mindset to whatever is being proposed. However, arms held at the sides indicates an openness to what you are saying. A sure sign of openness is when the other person interlaces their fingers, puts their hands behind their head, and has their elbows pointing towards you. In this posture, the person is communicating comfort and openness to you and your message.
Watching the hands is critically important. Hands that are visible with palms facing up conveys an openness to you, whereas hands hidden under the table, or stuck into pockets, generally indicates a degree of detachment from your message. When someone taps their fingers on the table or fidgets with their fingers (or with some other object), then it usually conveys distraction or agitation. But these actions can also indicate a desire to say something to you, so context is important. A pointing finger shows aggression (unless it’s accompanied with a wink indicating some type of agreement), a wagging finger is usually a warning, and a finger moving up and down is either a reprimand or is being used to place emphasis on something that has been said.
Some people use their arms and hands extensively in conversation. This can be very distracting, and those people are seldom aware they are doing it. In this situation, you must factor out the gesturing as much as possible but continue to observe the hands and arms for real signals. If you are someone who moves your arms and hands while talking, try to control this habit to avoid confusion, allowing people to focus more on what you are saying.
The Legs and Feet:
The legs and feet are often overlooked for a variety of reasons. In many instances, they are not visible because of a desk or table. In other cases, people simply do not observe them because the focus is on the face and the eyes. But the legs and feet can send very clear messages if you know how to read them.
The legs and feet are the primary indicators of the “fight, flight, or freeze” survival instincts and are programmed to work faster than the speed of thought. These instincts are entirely unconscious, and almost no one is aware of them or even thinks about controlling them.
If a person is sitting with their ankles crossed and their legs stretched forward, then they are comfortable with you. If, however, they are sitting with their feet pulled away from you, wrapped in a tight ankle lock or wrapped around the legs of a chair, or if their feet are pointed at the exit, then they are signaling withdrawal and disengagement. Additionally, crossed legs send their own important set of cues. If the foot on the leg that is crossed on top is pointing towards you, then a person is most likely engaged. If the opposite leg is crossed so that the top foot is pointing away from you, then a person may be withdrawing.
High-energy heel bouncing almost always indicates that the party involved has “happy feet” and are feeling pretty good about the conversation. Bouncing legs that suddenly go still are probably a sign of heightened anticipation – this is the equivalent of holding your breath to see what happens next.
Putting Body Language to Use:
Recognizing the messages being sent by a person’s body language is an important skill for improving communication in business and in all aspects of your life. But what do you do now that you can recognize these signals?
There are several key actions to take when you encounter negative signals from someone. First, if you are receiving negative signals, step back and redefine your communication objective internally and externally. What is the other person responding to? Are you making your point clearly or have you somehow muddled the message? Is the other person showing hostility? Ask yourself these questions and do so quickly. Continuing down a path where you are getting negative signals is a sure way to fail or misinterpret the conversation.
If you notice that a person is closed to you (their arms are crossed, and their legs and feet indicate they want to leave the conversation), then you must stop and determine what you need to do to increase a person’s comfort with what you are saying. Try to reframe your message as quickly as possible. Your success in communication depends on how well you can modify your behavior and your message in a situation. Stop talking and ask the other person what they think. Listen closely and watch them even more carefully. The easiest way to help a person feel more comfortable is to mirror their behaviors and words. Mirroring is very simple: use the words and expression they use and exhibit their behaviors and mannerism without becoming “fake.”
If you are getting positive signals from a person, there are also things you should do to maintain and even increase a positive condition.
First, keep on track with what you are trying to say. Do not get off track and proceed towards the closure or conclusion of what you are attempting to convey. Second, you can always create positive energy by continually reiterating ideas and validating understanding. Third, review what you have discussed and validate it with the other person by asking clarifying questions. Clarifying questions are simple questions of fact. These questions are concerned with the details needed to understand the situation. The other person should be able to answer these questions easily.
What About Your Body Language?
At this point we have mostly focused on the other person’s body language in a conversation, but what about your own body language? Here are some tips to keep in mind to nonverbally send the best message.
The first tip is to stand up (or sit up) straight. Your mother was right all along. An erect posture, whether you are standing or sitting, says a lot. You will be perceived as confident and in control of yourself.
To show that you are interested and engaged in the conversation, lean forward slightly. Do not exaggerate this position but leaning forward communicates that you are paying attention and the other person will respond accordingly.
Open your arms to let the other person know that you are fully involved in the conversation and that you have an open mind to the client’s situation and concerns. Don’t point! – Soften your gestures unless you are actively trying to convey aggression. Use fewer gestures to convey calmness and control as well as not posing a threat.
Make eye contact to build trust and to show that you are engaged and interested. To build good rapport in a conversation, you must make direct eye contact frequently and maintain it. Research shows that direct eye contact establishes rapport and aids trust with another person 60-70% of the time. However, it is also important to know that some studies show that exceedingly high levels of direct eye contact, say 90-100%, communicates disingenuousness or lying.
Use a lower vocal range to come across as more businesslike. It can be very important for women to make certain that their voice does not rise at the end of a statement. Otherwise, they may sound as if they are not certain about a statement or that they are even asking a tentative question. Linguists call this a High Rising Terminal, and there are training courses to help people learn to lower their voice at the end of a sentence.
Most importantly, remember to smile. Use your eyes, your face and your mouth, but make the smile sincere. A purely social smile – using just the mouth – will almost always be phony.
There are, of course, body language mannerisms that can be detrimental to your communication. Check your behaviors today and see if you are doing any of them.
The first is avoiding eye contact which makes you seem shy, uncertain or uninterested. Remember, the eyes are the most important communicative aspect of body language.
Second, as mentioned before, do not slouch- stand or sit up straight. Show that you are confident and paying attention.
Extra mouth movements such as biting your lips, twisting your mouth or other unnecessary movement makes it seem like you are trying not to say something, or that you are uncomfortable and anxious.
Whenever possible, keep your palms up and your hands open to show that you are also open and accepting.
Invading personal space – try to stay 3-4 feet away from others to avoid invading their space and making them feel uncomfortable. This varies among cultures, but in the United States 3-4 feet is generally considered a safe distance.
Holding a defensive stance such as crossing your arms or legs sends the signal that you are on the defensive and could become hostile.
Making unnecessary movements such as tapping your foot, twirling a pen, or tapping your fingers will signal impatience or agitation to the other person. Therefore, make sure to watch your personal physical “ticks.” Finally, remember that the best thing you can do to facilitate conversation is to smile. Use your eyes as well as your mouth, but don’t forget to pay close attention to the other person’s body language during the conversation. If you read it correctly and respond accordingly, you will be surprised by your newfound ability to communicate better with other people.
At Cogent Analytics, we never stop looking for ways to improve your business and neither should you. So, check out some of our other posts for helpful business information: