Besides our choice of words and the volume and tone of a voice, gestures, posture and facial expressions all convey powerful messages to the people we are talking to, which is precisely why everyone pays close attention to other people’s body language. What’s more, some research suggests that your body language can even affect your hormones, which affect your decisions and attitudes to risk. In other words, how we say what we say to people is at least as important as what we say to them.
Yet for all the care we take to read other people’s body language, we’re remarkably unconscious when it comes to our own. This is largely, I think, because knowledge of our true selves is hard and does not come naturally to us. Most of us are not what we think we are and therefore we need to question our self-image, which all too often is an idealized version of our true selves.
I have found over the course of a long career that the best way to become more aware of myself and of the impact of my own largely unconscious behavior is to systematically run through some standard drivers of negative body language.
Before you go into a meeting, for example, make a habit of asking yourself the following:
- When did I last eat? Physical conditions have a powerful impact on one’s emotional state and therefore on the body language colleagues and subordinates will be watching so closely. If you haven’t eaten for several hours, do so. Make sure you’ve visited the toilet recently. Be careful about having that extra cup of coffee just before you go in.
- Do I have issues with anyone I’m meeting? If you don’t make an effort to put your feelings about the people you’re meeting front of mind, those feelings will influence your emotional state. Suppose you are irritated with a particular subordinate. Your irritation could come through in the way you talk or position your body in relation to her (are you closed off, are your arms folded?), which could well inhibit her from making a useful contribution. Before going into a meeting, note the issues and feelings you have with the people you will be engaging with.
- Am I prepared? If you aren’t prepared for a meeting you’ll have to rely on winging it. In that case you will concentrate on making sure you keep up with the discussion and don’t show your ignorance. People who aren’t well prepared end up compensating by taking a lot of airtime to make others think that they are well informed. So, whatever body language faults they have get amplified. What’s more, they are unlikely to think about their body language if they are concentrating on winging it. So if you’re not prepared it’s better to postpone a meeting until you are or admit that you are not. If you can’t or won’t do either of these, the best thing is to keep quiet and make sure you’re better prepared the next time.
- Am I angry? If you are, just take time out. Anger doesn’t play well with any form of communication, non-verbal and verbal alike. Years ago, when I was running my family’s export-import business in Greece, I found out that one of my subordinates had made a serious mistake resulting in the imposition of a stiff fine by the Greek Customs. I was about to call him to my office to give him hell when it occurred to me that I had better calm down. So I waited and later went to his desk and told him quietly that I was aware of the mistake and requested him to write a memo explaining why the mistake had happened and how it could be avoided it in the future. The next day I received a detailed report, which contained a couple of very useful process suggestions that I decided to implement in the company.
The pre-flight prep I’ve outlined is essential but you have to keep reading the dials after you take off as well. You won’t be able to stay completely on top of things, of course, but it will help if you periodically ask yourself:
- Am I fidgeting? If you’re fairly still and listening then all is probably well. But if you’re shifting about in your chair, drumming your fingers, doodling or, worst of all looking at your phone, then you can be pretty sure that the person talking is likely to be feeling that you’re not interested in what they have to say. The question also leads naturally to thinking about how you are sitting or standing: are you looking at the person talking or out of the window? Is your pose attentive or are you leaning back with arms folded, indicating impatience or withrawn skepticism? This is especially important if you’re the boss because everyone else will be following every arch of your eyebrow.
- Am I interrupting? In any healthy debate people will occasionally interrupt. But if you do it a lot, people may feel that you’re not open and not listening carefully to what they are saying — or indeed that you’re overcompensating for your ignorance. When you are seen to deny the validity of a person’s argument that person will withdraw and will take offense. Asking yourself if you’re interrupting too much also leads naturally thinking about how you are communicating with your body, expressions, and gestures: are you acknowledging the other people, are you smiling at them or looking angry?
Hard-pressed managers are at risk of messing up their encounters with their subordinates through failing to keep tabs on their own body language. Everyone prepares like crazy for a meeting with someone more important, and most people have some concern about looking smart, polite and engaged in front of the boss, which forces them to pay some attention to the way they behave. But bosses don’t have that motivaton and all too seldom take the time to think about how they conduct their interactions with subordinates and colleagues.
We cannot expect to be able to iron out all our communication faults but we should try at least to become aware of them and of their negative impact. In any case, awareness of our interactive behavior is self-fulfilling and, therefore, is gradually internalized and thus requires less and less conscious effort on our part.
by the excellent Charalambos Vlachoutsicos