During a performance review, a boss asks an employee if he has problem getting along with co-workers. “Absolutely not!” the employee replies, but he unconsciously nods yes. The boss frowns in concern. Why? “When people don’t know whether to believe what they are hearing or what they’re seeing, they go with the body language — it tells the truth,” says management consultant Nancy Austin. “You can play fast and loose with words, but it’s much more difficult to do that with your gestures.”
Everyday, in hundreds of ordinary situations, actions speak far louder than words. “We talk with our vocal cords, but we communicate with our facial expressions, our tone of voice, our whole body,” says psychologist Paul Ekman.
Understanding body skills is one of the most practical skills you can develop. “When you consciously ‘read’ what others are saying unconsciously,” says Marilyn Maple, an educator, “you can deal with issues — at work and at home — before they become problems.”
On the Job: Most of the nonverbal communication at work centers on a single theme: power, which translates into status. The next time you go to a meeting, look around to see who has the higher status. In every specie or society, those in control strive to appear large, strong and fearless. While gorillas may screech or thump their chest to assert dominance, humans have their own ways of signaling who’s in charge.
The leaders in a group usually are the ones who lean back in their chairs, fold their arms behind their heads and put their feet up on the desk. To make a point, the lean forward, signaling an easy confidence and command of space.
Superiors also take great control of conversation. The person who enjoys higher position tends to talk more, speak louder and interrupt others.
Never to trust the words only must go for the body language also, suppose the head of your company announces to his staff that the firm has been bought by a conglomerate. “This is great news!” he says. “The new owners are very impressed with your work. Your jobs are more secure than ever”.
As he speaks, your boss stands stiffly behind a chair, his hands clasped in front of him. He smiles often, although his eyes have a serious look. His voice is flat, and the pitch seems higher than usual. Should you believe him? “Look for discrepancies between what you are seeing and what you are hearing,” suggests Austin. Your boss’s body language is anything but reassuring.
If your boss smiles as he responds to any one of your ideas, don’t assume you have won him over. Paul Ekman says about smiles that, “they are much more complicated than people realize,” he has identified 18 distinctive smiles—most of them false. One of the most common in business situation is the “qualifier” smile, which superiors often use when rejecting an idea or criticizing an employee.
At Home: When a mother insists she’s not upset by a knocked-over glass of milk, kids often ignore the words and react to a frown or strained voice. “Children read nonverbal cues first,” says Maple. “The younger the children are the more important the nonverbal communication is, because that’s all they have.” Even newborns respond to body language. “An infant will sense tension in the way her mother is holding her and begin to cry,” says Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology, “if the mother is relaxed, the infant relaxes too.”
Parents should also read children’s nonverbal messages. “See what they do when they are upset, how they release tension and respond to stress,” Maple advises. Many weird behaviors signal that a child may need attention.
Getting Your Signals Straight: By understanding how to use body language, you can communicate more effectively. Here’s how:
1) Tune in to your body-talk: Throughout the day, notice the way you speak, gesture and move. When standing, keep your shoulders erect, your body open and your weight evenly balanced on both feet. But don’t feel you have to be ram-rod straight. “Posture that is too stiff can indicate rigidity in thought,” Maple notices. Identify little things when you are tense. Some people twirl a lock of their hair or play with a pen. Train yourself to control these behaviors. “They can undermine the strength of what you want to say,” says Austin.
2) Work on your handshake: In the business world, the handshake conveys crucial messages about power and status. The handshake most likely to convey confidence is firm and dry, with strong but not excessive pressure applied steadily for the time the contact lasts. Don’t bend your wrist or grip only the fingers.
3) Establish good eye contact: “Eye contact is the most remembered element in forming an impression of someone,” says Austin. “You must acquire the ability to sustain direct eye contact if you want to be taken seriously.”
In work-related situations, says Ekman, “the dominant person always has the right to look and keep looking; the subordinate is supposed to look away. If you maintain eye contact so intently that your boss feels uncomfortable, he’ll sense that you are challenging his authority—even if that’s not what you intended.”
4) Communicate at your child’s level: The way you hold your baby can show youngsters where you—and they—stand. With young children, kneel or bend down so can look into their eyes. With older kids, lean against a wall or counter, put your weight on one foot and keep your arms at your side so you appear open to their needs.
5) Be Yourself: “Nonverbal messages come from deep inside you, from your own sense of self-esteem,” says Maple. “To improve your body language, you have to start from the inside and work out. If you’re comfortable with yourself, it shows. People who know who they are have a relaxed way of talking and moving. They always come across well.”