When the experts analyze human communication, they report that 55% of our effect is based on our body language. That means that over half of how our communication is received, is not based on the words we say or our tone of voice, but on the signals we are sending through our eyes, facial expressions, hand and arm gestures, and body posture. What makes our body language so powerful as a communicator?
Our faces alone have the ability to contort into over 1,000 different expressions – happy, sad, disinterested, curious, anxious, annoyed, sarcastic, frustrated – and the list goes on. When we’re feeling passive (the flight response) about circumstances, our shoulders will droop, head and eyes are downcast, and there is a lot of nervous hand movement. We will pull away in an attempt to distance from the other person. Passive body language makes others nervous because the person appears to lack the confidence to cope with the particular situation.
When we’re feeling aggressive (the fight response), our eyes stare and appear cold and threatening; our hands position on our hips and arms are folded. Our bodies will appear rigid and edgy, with a tendency to move into another person’s space. An aggressive person might point a pen or finger at another person when speaking, or move too close into another person’s “space.” Aggressive behavior also makes us nervous because we’re not sure what the person is going to do or whether he/she will try to harm us.
Assertive body language, on the other hand, appears relaxed, spontaneous and unpretentious. Facial expressions are direct, genuine and caring. Body posture leans forward and is erect and self-assured. Distance feels appropriate to the situation. Assertive body language engenders in others a feeling of confidence and capability.
Experts suggest that we have 4-7 seconds to make a positive impression, all of which is based on the signals we are sending through our body language. This impression determines our likeability and receptivity. When training trainers I like to role-play what it would be like if I began the training session in a timid, confused and befuddled fashion. They all laugh and say, “Well you wouldn’t be credible.” That’s right. My profession requires that body language be very open, encouraging, and collaborative.
The question is really – what does your profession require your body to say? Are you a manager or supervisor whose role is to motivate and engage employees in their jobs and encourage continuous improvement? Does your body language to them “speak” in a way that causes the employee to want to offer ideas and ask questions, or does the raised eyebrow and folded arms create discrepancy between the words that invite participation and the body language that closes it off? Whatever your body is saying will speak louder than the words you are using.
Recently, I watched a manager in a meeting shake his head back and forth during a brainstorming session, clearly indicating his preference for or against each idea. Another supervisor we have been coaching received his 360 feedback which described his behavior as bullying. I’m never sure whether these people don’t know the effect of their body language or just don’t care.
So, it’s time to take an assessment of what your body is telling others. If you want to be a leader, does your body say that? If you want to be taken seriously and respected by others, are you demonstrating assertive body language? If you want employees to bring forward suggestions and problems, are your body signals showing that you’ll be open to whatever they say?