How to use body language to improve your communication

1. Quotable quote

"When it comes to selling either your personal charms or professional abilities, body language talks loudest of all."

David Lewis in The Secret Language.

2. Don't forget

In nonverbal communication, the real meaning of the message resides in the receiver, not in the sender. You may feel ‘comfortable’ and at ease with your arms crossed or fingers drumming, but studies show that the reception of such gestures is negative.

3. Here's an idea

Nonverbally increase your status and power by incorporating some nonverbal gymnastics into your office…

  • Have a slim briefcase.
  • Make sure the height of the back of your chair is higher than your visitor’s.
  • Have your chair higher off the floor than your visitor’s.
  • Leave some red folders on the desk marked ‘Strictly Confidential’.
  • Cover a wall with your awards or qualifications.

4. It's all in the body language

If you doubt the power of projecting a positive body language, think again. In a study conducted researchers at UCLA, 10,000 people were asked what their initial impressions were of a person they later said 'Yes' to. The results were:

  • 7% said the person had good knowledge of the topic, product or service.
  • 38% said the person had good voice quality. They sounded confident and intelligent.
  • 55% said it was the way the person walked. They had an air of confidence and self-assurance rolling off them even as they approached.

5. Read the signals

It is not so much what we hear as what we see. By understanding the basic gestures that accompany many of the everyday thought processes, a valuable insight into people around us can be gained. We must train ourselves to read the non-verbal signals of behaviour, custom and etiquette given out by others.

Joseph Braysich in The Complete Executive.

6. Look for cluster signals

Kris Cole, author of 'Crystal Clear Communication', says that a cluster of body language signs tells us more than an isolated gesture or movement. Just because someone is drumming their fingers on the table or tapping their foot on the floor doesn't mean they're impatient; they could be simply be beating out the latest tune. "Always think about the context in which the body language occurs and observe clusters of signals, not solitary signals," she warns. So…

Boredom is given away by a combination of crossed legs with a foot swinging, doodling, a blank stare, drumming fingers, taking deep breaths, or putting head in hands.

Frustration could be indicated by short breaths, hands tightly closed, running a hand through hair, rubbing the back of the neck, and wringing hands.

Disagreement might be revealed by crossed arms, accompanied by avoiding eye contact, tapping a foot, and occasionally shaking of the head (while someone whose crossed arms are accompanied by rubbing of upper arms, hunched shoulders, and stomping feet is probably just cold!).

7. The book

What people say is often very different from what they think or feel - but how do you tell? The answer lies in the study of body language and the guru of this field is Allan Pease. A person's gestures, he claims, are very accurate indicators of his or her attitudes, thoughts, desires or emotions. In his bestseller 'Body Language: How to Read Others' Thoughts by Their Gestures', which has gone though well over 100 reprints, he outlines techniques that show you how to interpret gestures correctly and thus to 'read' the underlying thoughts and emotions. He discusses, for example, how to tell if your opponent is lying, how negative thoughts are expressed and how to overcome them, how to make yourself more credible and likeable, how to control a conversation, interview or negotiation, and so on.

8. Body language and birdwatchers

There will always be those who throw up their hands in horror and claim that the study of body language is just another means by which scientific knowledge can be used to exploit or dominate others by reading their secrets or thoughts. But, as Allan Pease in his bestselling 'Body Language: How to Read Others' Thoughts by Their Gestures' comments: 'Understanding how something works makes living with it easier, whereas a lack of understanding and ignorance promote fear and superstition and make us more critical of others. A birdwatcher does not study birds so that he can shoot them down and keep them as trophies. In the same way, the acquisition of knowledge and skills in non-verbal communication serves to make every encounter with another person an exciting experience.'

9. It's the eyes that count

In 1960, the year of the first televised presidential debates in the United States, radio listeners, who only heard the Kennedy-Nixon debates, thought Richard Nixon had won. Television viewers who saw the debates thought John Kennedy had won. As the election results showed, the 'eyes' won!

If you're a speaker, then your body language makes an important contribution to your success.

Research by a leading communications expert, Professor Albert Mehrabian, has scientifically measured the impact of speakers on audiences. The conclusion? Dr Mehrabian found that a speaker's impact - favourable or unfavourable - is determined by three basic factors: verbal, vocal, and visual.

How do they measure up? According to 'American Speaker':

  1. Verbal impressions (the actual words spoken) account for only 7 per cent of impact.
  2. Vocal impressions (tone, range, appeal and 'credibility' of the speaker's voice) account for 38 per cent of impact.
  3. Visual impressions (the speaker's physical appearance, clothing, gestures, stance, eye contact, etc.) account for a whopping 55 per cent of impact.

10. Status in the office

Consider the use of certain objects strategically placed around your office. They can be subtly used non-verbally to increase your status and power. Body language guru Allan Pease says we should give a little thought to the nonverbal gymnastics of our offices by, for example:

  • Installing low sofas for visitors to sit on
  • Locating a pen container from overseas on your desk
  • Leave some red folders on the desk marked 'Strictly Confidential'
  • Cover a wall with photos, awards or qualifications that you have received
  • Have a slim briefcase (Large, bulky brief cases, he says, are carried by those who do all the work.)
  • Make sure the height of the back of your chair is higher than that of your visitor's chair
  • Adjust your chair so that it is higher off the floor than your visitor's.

11. Entering the room

According to Lynne Henderson, Principal of CEO International Inc, your most powerful initial entrance strategy should embrace four essential areas: posture, the effective use of personal space, eye contact, and the smile.

'There should be good use of your personal bubble, meaning the space you claim around you. Good posture allows you to naturally claim your space. The ribs should be pulled up, the knees should be straight but not locked. The way in which the hand extends away from the body can show confidence or hesitancy. Establishing eye contact immediately and smiling authentically gives others the sense that you are genuinely interested in them and the relationship will follow.'

12. The difference

According to Gary Smalley, there are some key differences between men and women which, if understood, can lead to better outcomes in many conflict situations. Smalley's 'five favourites' include:

  • Men love to share facts. Women love to share feelings.
  • Men tend to be independent. Women tend to be interdependent.
  • Men connect by doing things. Women connect by talking.
  • Men tend to compete. Women tend to cooperate.
  • Men tend to be controlling. Women tend to remain agreeable.

13. Strange Symbolic Gestures

  • In parts of southern India, here is a gesture of respect that we might resent (thumb to nose and fingers wave).
  • Thumb and first finger forming a circle means "OK" in the United States but is obscene south of the border, means worthless" in Southern France, and means "money" in Japan.
  • Winston Churchill's famous V-for-Victory sign is closely akin to the insulting gesture in many cultures that means "You have horns; your wife is cuckolding you."
  • The English hiss actors to show extreme disapproval. In Japan, hissing expresses social deference.
  • There are many ways to indicate "yes" or "no." Our up-and-down or side-to-side nods of the head mean the opposite in parts of Greece, Turkey, and India. In Sicily you tilt your head back slightly and thrust out your chin for "no." An Abyssinian tilts her head back and raises her eyebrows for "yes." She jerks her head toward her right shoulder to show disapproval.
  • In many places, spitting is a gross sign of contempt, inviting violence. But if a Masai warrior spits in your presence, you needn't run; he's trying to show friendship and respect.
  • In our culture, we stand up (or used to) to show respect for women and elders. Fiji Islanders sit down before a superior. This is akin to the ancient oriental tradition of groveling before a ruler, since anyone who dared raise his head higher than the King's risked losing it.
  • One of the most interesting signs of respect is found in the Friendly Islands, aptly named. There the natives take their clothes off to show esteem for others.
  • Conversing with your hands in your pockets is impolite in France, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, and Indonesia. In Fiji it's bad manners to raise your arms, but crossing them over your chest is very good.