Whether it is a business or personal interaction, multiple studies show that as much as 50% to 90% of communication is non-verbal. This means the “text-or-email-only” method relays less than half of the intended message which, in turn, causes misunderstandings. Yet the world sends over eight billion texts per day, and businesses encourage chat or text-only work environments as Gen-Y enters the workforce. The concern should not merely be misinterpretation; it is the loss of our ability to understand and use body language to our advantage, especially in the workplace.
First, understand your baseline.
Understanding your baseline, and that of those around you, should be your first step. Skipping this often leads to misinterpretation. A baseline stance is a person’s body language when the person is under no pressure. To arrive at a baseline, you may want to ask straightforward, softball questions. These are questions your counterpart is familiar with and has the answers to, so you can observe them in their most relaxed and honest state.
On your journey to CEO, you will need to be cognizant of your body language and the body language of those around you. Here are some of the cues you need to be aware of, while you are evaluating others:
Acute Observations. Watch your counterpart’s cues, without being too shifty or obvious. If you have observed their baseline, you will notice signs of engagement, disengagement and tension, which will be apparent in their body language. Engagement actions, like head nods, forward leans and eye contact, point out interest and agreement. Disengagement actions, like leaning back, frowning and looking away, indicate that the individual is dispassionate, aggravated, apprehensive or sometimes bored. Additionally, tension cues like face-touching, firmly crossed ankles and a higher vocal pitch are signs of disapproval.
Eye contact. The eyes are the most powerful part of our body language, and can express everything from happiness to annoyance, interest to pain. Frequent eye contact is interpreted as honesty and forthrightness. Staring is interpreted as aggression. These are obvious statements, but we forget that we have the power to be more intentional about our expressions.
Facial expression. A critical message conveyed with a smile will have a totally different impact than one delivered with an angry face.
Smiling. During a conversation, and especially during a mediation, keep the tone in the room warm, light and airy. Simply smiling from time to time does exactly that for you without adjusting the thermostat or opening a window. Even though you must always assume that your counterpart in the negotiation is not your friend, and will not be involved in the next conversation on the topic, smiling could change the tone of a mediation.
Head nodding. A common negotiating tactic is to look your counterpart in the eye and nod your head, even in the face of disagreement and criticism. This nonverbal gesture reduces tension and leads to alignment. Beware of the instances when your counterpart is nodding their head but actually does not understand what is going on.
3) Hands & Feet.
Handshake. Shaking hands at the beginning and end of an interaction signals openness or goodwill. In the business world, palm-to-palm contact is important for sincerity.
Hand-to-face. Even when your eyes and facial expressions are genuine, hand-to-face movements such as holding the chin or scratching the face shows concern or lack of conviction. If a person is covering their mouth while telling you something, they may be lying.
Hand positions. Your hands can indicate when you are anxious or stressed. In a conversation, hands should mirror confidence and serenity. If you clasp or fidget with your hands, your counterpart will know that you are worried and will try to take advantage.
Feet. Your feet can talk for you, and a number of scientists have proven this. For example, Professor Geoffrey Beattie, Head of School and Dean of Psychological Sciences at the University of Manchester, and research by shoemakers like Jeffery West, suggest that if a man is nervous, he will show his feelings by increasing his foot movement. Women however, do the opposite, and keep their feet still if they are nervous. The research states that “Alpha” males and females have a low level of leg and foot movement because they like to dominate and control the conversation and the same goes for their body. Extroverts do likewise but for different reasons, while shy people have frequent movements.
Posture. If you are trying to appear dominant or authoritative, stand erect with shoulders back. A slumped position usually indicates insecurity, guilt or weakness.
Relaxedness. In situations of conflict, you will benefit from a relaxed body position, especially in reaction to tension. This, along with a calm tenor of voice and non- violent words, will build trust and credibility with your counterparts.
Arms and legs position. Folded arms or crossed legs, perhaps turning away slightly, indicates a lack of interest and detachment. Uncrossed arms and legs may be a sign of acceptance of your position or terms.
Space occupied. Some people stand up and move around to be more dominant or threatening. Even while sitting, you can stretch your legs to occupy more space. Standing while talking on the phone will make your voice sound more urgent, but pacing could make your tone sound unstable.
Micro-expressions and gesture collections. Non-verbal signals generally come about in a collection of (often three) gestures. These are a set of any of the movements and actions above that emphasize a certain point of view. For example, shifty eyes, twitching feet and tensed hands are signs of anxiety and discomfort.
Mirroring. Most people feel more comfortable and open with people in a similar position to themselves. An example would be sitting down to meet with a key vendor, rather than standing to deliver demands. Good managers practice this one to address personnel issues.
Lastly, watch out for lies.
Based on a number of scientific studies and accounts of behavioral experts, here are some of the things to watch out for in other people and yourself:
- The person may change their head position quickly, breathe more rapidly or shuffle their feet, out of higher alertness and anxiety
- The person stands very still and blinks less to compensate for their anxiety
- The person may subconsciously touch or cover their mouth because of a lack of confidence in their words
- The person tends to instinctively cover vulnerable body parts due to a heightened sense of guilt and awareness
- The person may stumble on their words, or repeat words or phrases and provide unwanted detail in order to convince themselves of a lie.
Your body language – reflected by your body, eyes, face, hands and feet – communicate more than you can control at first. Your next step to communicating effectively with your body language is to understand what your micro-expressions are saying.