Body language is an essential ingredient of first impressions and effective communication. In my years as a communications coach for leaders, I was always surprised at how little even successful people understood about the importance of non-verbal communication. In reality, our words have a mere 7% effect on how our communication is perceived. On the other hand, body language and tone of voice has a greater impact of 55% and 38% respectively.
Having said that, not everyone is born with natural charisma, stage presence or perfect body language. Most of us cultivate it over time, as we do with the way we write our emails and how we approach negotiation discussions. Like most things at work, body language too comes with a cheat sheet.
Here are a few tips that always help –
Keep them in check! This becomes especially important if you are engaging in a tough conversation or communicating during times of conflict. There is always a marked difference between work and emotion. While it is important to “be yourself”, you also can’t let your expressions give away any lack of objectivity. Prepare yourself for difficult conversations in advance and practice control. If you appear more upset than you need to be about a situation at work, chances are that your opinion will be duly dismissed as “too emotional”. Overbearing facial expressions can often also make the other party unnecessarily defensive – never a good way to engage someone in a conversation.
Dragging or stomping your feet, slumping and awkward gait tends to make people jump to quick conclusions about your temperament, proactiveness, energy levels and confidence. Chances are that they might be wrong in their assumptions, according to a study by the Scientific American. But often, as it happens with job interviews and client meetings, you rarely get a chance to change the assumptions that people make about you. Why take the chance? Cultivate a confident gait and walk with purpose to exude positive energy.
Responding to emails during a brainstorming session or your watch, or letting the barrage of notifications on your phone drift you away mentally – there are so many different ways to appear disinterested in our times! And it is even legitimate in the name of multi-tasking. But if you really want people to contribute ideas or collaborate, then appear to pay attention to what they have to say. Nodding your head or leaning in show that you are paying attention. Practice it more often.
High-pitched voices are perceived to be less empathic or powerful and more nervous. Ending your sentences with a high pitch communicates uncertainty or seeking approval. If you need to appear authoritative, speak in even tones. If your pitch or tone of voice makes you appear like you are throwing a tantrum, chances are your colleagues won’t be taking you seriously any time soon.
Brain imaging shows that the Broca’s area of our brain, which is responsible for speech production, is active not only when we talk but also when we engage in hand gestures. Clearly, gesturing is intrinsically linked to speech and can help us power our way through chats that need more than words.
Gestures may help you improve verbal content but do it in moderation. You don’t want to appear nervous and fidgety.
Reams of scientific research have been published about the quality of one’s handshake and what it says about them. I try to be non-judgmental but going in for a firm handshake and being met with a limp blanket in return is a put off for me too. It is such a sure shot sign of lack of self-confidence and personality and the resulting passive aggression. For me, it has become par for the course with regards to male-dominated board rooms, where they don’t quite believe that I belong in the room. In my limited experience, it takes them about ten minutes to prove my quick and unnecessary judgment rather true.
Allan Pease, one of the most celebrated author and communication experts in the world, accurately names the limp handshake as “the Dead Fish”.
According to Pease, “Shaking hands is a relic of the caveman era, which originates from early arm wrestling games. Certain handshake techniques can communicate dominance or submissiveness, and can affect the outcome of a meeting. To create a positive first impression, keep your palm vertical and give the same pressure you receive. The stronger a person's handshake, the more likely it will be in the 'upper hand' in a greeting. By giving equal pressure and a vertical handshake, it will put others at ease and creative a positive environment to begin a face-to-face encounter.”
I strongly believe that effective communication is the answer to most workplace issues, and it takes more than mere words. Haven’t all of us had a team member whose apparent lack of interest in the conversation became more of an issue than the quality of their work and input? We are only humans and jumping to conclusions, sometimes correctly but often incorrectly too, is our thing. Judgment is a two-way street. Accepting it as part human nature is the only way to make effective communication par for the course at the workplace.