Communicating as a Leader

Body Language – How To Know What They're Really Saying

Clare Evans asked:

When we communicate with someone we will be doing so on a number of levels, not just the words that we use – tone of voice and body language are also important factors in non-verbal communication.

Eye contact – is one of the most powerful means of communication after words. It can be direct or indirect, long-lasting or short and more usually intermittent when talking to someone in normal conversation. Staring or holding eye contact for too long can make people feel uncomfortable and is unsettling. Appropriate eye contact is important for effective communication. People who like or feel comfortable with each other engage in eye contact more frequently. People who avoid eye contact are likely to be feeling uncomfortable, guilty or embarrassed.

Face – next on the list after the eyes. This is one of the first features we notice. By looking at someone’s face we can read their emotion. Small gestures like the eyebrow flash happen almost subconsciously when we greet people we are pleased to see or who we know. A smile can also work wonders when greeting someone for the first time. It can also be used to calm and help people to feel at ease. A genuine smile lights up the whole face including the eyes, a forced or nervous smile tends to stay around the mouth. Where someone looks when you talk to them can tell you which side of the brain they’re accessing and if they’re a visual, auditory or kinetic person.

Posture – has a lot to say about how a person feels about themselves and the person they’re with. Are they leaning in towards each other or away from each other? Mirroring someone’s posture is a good way to create rapport and will happen naturally in some situations. Try it out but don’t make it too obvious or it can be off-putting. What is the posture of someone who feels confident? How does someone sit/stand when they feel threatened or fearful? If you have to give a presentation and feel nervous – adopt a posture of confidence and think yourself into a positive mode. See what a difference it makes.

Hand gestures – particularly at the moment, we are exposed to the carefully managed gestures of politicians when giving their pre-election speeches. The use of hand gestures can be another interesting aspect of body language that show attitudes and emotions. An open palm signifies sincerity, openness. Steepling of the fingers is seen as authoritative, or used during negotiation when considering a proposal. Tapping or drumming the fingers shows impatience. Touching the face indicates thinking, the hair insecurity and the ears indecision.

Personal space – everyone has their own sense of personal space that we carry around with us. We should be aware of this personal space so that we don’t invade someone’s personal space uninvited. Invading someone’s personal space can seem threatening and the person will move away to a more comfortable distance. In crowded situations personal space is greatly reduced and other factors will come into account such as avoidance of eye contact and the use of defensive postures.

Body contact – the handshake is the most recognised form of body contact and used in greetings and farewells. A firm handshake is preferred in both men and women. A weak handshake shows either ineffectiveness, insincerity or reluctance. Bone crusher handshakes on the other hand are seen as aggressive or overly dominant. People brought up where body contact is a normal part of family life tend to be more positive and open than those with less. Always be aware and observe what is acceptable with an individual or for different cultures.

When interpreting body language you need to take into account all parts of the body. Changes in a person’s normal body language indicate a change in emotion or attitude. Don’t assume that because someone has their arms crossed they are being defensive, perhaps they really are just cold! Look at all the different signals before interpreting the final message – at least three to four.

Fun Exercise: Watch people’s body language when you’re next in a position to observe. How close are they? How much eye contact is there? Can you tell if they know/like each other? Are they strangers or friends? See how much of the conversation you can guess from observing people’s body language.

Copyright 2005: Clare Evans


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