What We Must Know About Body Language

by Terry L. Sumerlin

A young lady, dressed in business attire, enters a restaurant. Waiting to be seated, she leans slightly on the hostess stand as if it’s been a long day. When she’s seated, as per her request, it’s at a table as far away from the other guests as possible. She orders, eats her dinner and reads — without saying anything to anyone but her server. Well, that’s not exactly true. To anyone who notices, though not verbally, she says a great deal. She’s not rude. However, through body language, she says: I’m tired. This is my down time and I want to be left alone to eat, read and unwind.

This illustrates the first thing most of us need to know about body language. Every time we are in the presence of others, we are communicating by this very quiet method. It is unavoidable.

We tend to think that the easiest way to avoid saying the wrong thing is to just say nothing. There are times for all of us when that would certainly be an improvement! However, the best way to really avoid sending the wrong message is to always be conscious of what we say and do. Facial expressions, gestures and posture send a message, apart from anything we might or might not verbalize.

This leads us to the second thing we need be aware of regarding body language. It can be, and often is, more powerful than words. In fact, when our words and body language convey conflicting messages, guess which message is received.

To answer that question, call to mind something you might have observed at a meeting or conference. The speaker tells you from the podium that he is excited to be your speaker. Yet, there’s no smile, no eye contact and no gestures. The speaker appears far from relaxed. Do you believe that he is excited? After all, that’s what he said. But his actions say something different. His actions say that he lacks confidence or that he is scared to death.

Let’s transfer that concept to communication both in and out of the workplace. It’s a nice thing to tell friends, employees and customers that you appreciate them. However, they are more likely to believe your words if they see the smile on your face, the acceptance in your eyes and the warmth in your posture.

This conflict between body language and words, and the power of the former over the later, is something that has been observed by animal trainers. They say that oftentimes the main reason some amateur trainers have little success in training pets is because the animal is confused by conflicting messages. The voice says one thing and the body language says something else. The animal instinctively ignores the words and obeys the body language. People often do the same thing. For that reason, we need to be sure that our body language always matches our verbal communication. If they don’t match, our words are going to lose the battle between the two – every time.

The third thing we need to keep in mind is that since communication is a two-way street, we must always be monitoring the other person’s body language as well as our own. For instance, if the other person tilts the head, it might mean he/she doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree. If she looks at her watch, it might mean she is pressed for time. In that case, now might not be a good time to talk. For effective communication, we must listen and look for what is said, and then we must adapt accordingly.

Finally, we must not to jump to hasty, erroneous conclusions regarding the actions or mannerisms of others. Body language is best assessed contextually and as a total package, rather than when isolated.

By itself, the fact that the arms are crossed may not mean anything other than that the room is cold. It doesn’t always mean a person is unapproachable or defensive. It might, but it also might not. Similarly, one might wink because of a nervous tick rather than because he’s flirting. During a program one might raise her hand to straighten her hair, rather than to ask the speaker a question. Common sense is always important to accurately determine what message someone is sending.

LEADERSHIP TIP: We are always communicating by what we say as well as by what we do. To communicate effectively, always be conscious of the message we and others are sending, whether by words, actions or both.

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