Four body language tips to avoid misunderstanding

Thursday 19 September 2019
Here’s how to read the body language signs that other managers will miss
people's shadows on wall

In 2012, Amy Cuddy gave what has become the second-most popular TED talk ever. Her presentation, Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are, made a compelling case for how our body language can affect our self-belief and confidence as much as they affect our communication.

In other words, matter over mind can be as potent a tool of empowerment as mind over matter. Cuddy made worldwide headlines and convinced people to adopt the notorious ‘power pose’ ahead of an interview. This, she said, would not only make people feel more powerful but would genuinely help them to become so.

While empowerment may have been at the core of Cuddy’s talk, there is much more to non-verbal communication than striking a victory pose to boost confidence. Body language – and to a lesser degree vocalisation – is how the first humans communicated, how babies let us know what they want, and how we interact with other cultures when we can’t use speech.

Humans are finely tuned to interpret behaviour, so body language can reveal more than words, which we can manipulate easily to tell people what we think they want to hear. To avoid misunderstandings at work, ensure your voice and body speak the same language. As Cuddy says, “don’t fake it to make it, fake it to become it… bodies change minds, minds change behaviour, and behaviour can change outcomes”.

Watch people’s hands and adapt your behaviours

If you need to have a tricky conversation with someone, watch their body language and adjust what you say accordingly. For example, if their arms are folded, or hands clasped, they are in defensive mode and will most likely be unresponsive to what you say. Modify your speech to reassure them and to bring them on side. If they’re avoiding eye contact or turned away from you, in can indicate discomfort or even shame. Put their body language into the context of the conversation – if this is a performance review or interview, their feelings are probably stemming from insecurity; if it’s a meeting to discuss a problematic project, it may be a defense mechanism.

Using the ‘right’ body language can help defuse potentially tense situations; subtly mirror some of the actions of the person you’re with to help build a rapport. Keep your body relaxed, no matter how tense you feel.

Be present during conversations

Don’t let your body language advertise how bored you are at the company meeting. Sit upright, don’t gaze into space or out of the window, and don’t doodle or sneak a look at your phone. When you speak in meetings, touching your face or mouth might suggest that you are not telling the truth so stay aware of your actions. Raised eyebrows, rolling eyes and pursed lips communicate derision, so if you’re daydreaming, your facial expressions may reveal you. Be present in the meeting, practice your self-awareness, and try not to be rude or disrespectful by ignoring what the speakers are saying.

Be aware of people’s personal space

Don’t invade your colleagues’ personal space. While Cuddy advocates spreading out to look more confident and assertive, getting too close can make the other person feel uncomfortable or even threatened. Though you want to make sure you look interested and engaged by leaning forwards, make sure you’re not uncomfortably close. Equally, putting too much physical distance between you creates a sense of disconnect and disinterest.

Look out for defensive body language signs

As well as being mindful of how you can be misunderstood, be aware of not misunderstanding your team; be observant and learn to read their body language. Let’s say you’re delegating tasks to more junior members of staff – they may be telling you that they’re looking forward to taking on the project, but their expressions may be showing you how they really feel. If they look away or physically withdraw – by pulling away from you or slumping – it could be an indication that they don’t really feel able to do the job or would prefer not to. Interpreting the cues correctly can help you address the situation and avoid problems further down the line.

Team up our body language analysis with CMI learnings on how to use empathy in the workplace to navigate your difficult conversations with ease.

Image: Unsplash