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The Workplace

Why Body Language Might Be The Key To A Promotion

How to ace non-verbal communication in the office

Don’t judge a book by its cover, we say, while doing the exact opposite. Humans are depressingly shallow creatures, constantly making snap judgments and acting on gut instincts. We form an opinion of someone within seconds of meeting them and this informs all our future expectations and interactions.

You mustn’t feel too bad, though. The ability to make lightning-fast decisions in response to subtle visual cues is hard-wired into our primal monkey brains and dates from a time when knowing who was an enemy and who was an ally was, quite literally, a case of life and death. The problem comes from the fact that we still rely on these animal instincts while living in complex 21st-century society, which leads to no end of misunderstandings.

Mastering non-verbal body language is essential for any business leader because it’s often our unconscious behaviour that causes conflict and confusion in the workplace. This deep-rooted language is millions of years old. It predates speech, which makes mastery a challenge. How to begin untangling the art of physical communication?

Lost in translation

“We’re always communicating on two channels: the verbal and the non-verbal,” says Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, author of three books on body language in the workplace. “The key to being an effective non-verbal communicator is realising that the impact of what you say is less about what you mean and more about what people are receiving.”

We put a huge amount of thought into our choice of words, but they are only one small part of effective communication. We communicate in at least seven verbal and non-verbal ways: hand gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression, voice tone, voice volume and verbal content. When it comes to the emotional impact of what we say, the verbal content is relatively unimportant. It’s thought to account for about seven per cent of emotional impact, whereas more than 50 per cent is based on facial expressions and almost 40 per cent on tone.

According to Dr Goman, the task is made more difficult by the fact that we constantly make mistakes in reading emotions, which range from discounting context (maybe your boss seems moody because she hasn’t had her morning coffee yet) to over-analysing a single gesture (that glance at his watch was because he has a 4.00pm meeting, not because he’s bored). Perhaps, most importantly, we are primed to read the worst into each other’s body language. It’s better to assume the other monkey wants to steal your banana than give him the benefit of the doubt. This means we have our work cut out when trying to communicate effectively at work and have to put extra effort into non-verbal clarity. If you’re the kind of person who can give off ambiguous signals, you may need to overcompensate verbally, explaining that you need a coffee or are keeping an eye on the time for your next meeting. And if you know that you’re acutely sensitive to the body language of others, try to challenge your gut instinct and actively ask yourself if there could be other interpretations.

First impressions

“First impressions are crucial in business, with people taking seven seconds or less to judge a whole range of things from trustworthiness to competence,” says Dr Goman. “Once you’ve been mentally pigeonholed, everything else you do will be viewed through this filter and changing someone’s perception of you will be an uphill battle.”

When it comes to first impressions, body language has four times the impact of anything you say, which means it’s worth careful consideration. Dr Goman flags six areas for focus when meeting someone: posture, eye contact, eyebrow use, smiling, body angle and attitude. The latter is an interesting one because it requires consciously altering your mental state, which takes practice, but the good news is alterations in posture can change your emotions, too. Facial feedback, for example, is the observation that physically smiling triggers “happy” hormones such as serotonin while reducing stress hormones such as cortisol, which simulates the emotion that it’s supposed to signify.

The more familiar non-verbal signals are worth a closer look, too. Eye contact, for example, is not about getting locked into a staring competition. Experts have found that softening the gaze is key, so try looking at the eyes for two seconds followed by the face for two seconds then the nose for two seconds before going back to the eyes. And a strong handshake is not about crushing knuckles. It is firm, brief and uses palm-to-palm contact rather than just your fingers.

The language of leaders

Body language isn’t all about the impression you make on others. It has a demonstrable effect on your own sense of confidence, too. Research from Harvard and Columbia business schools has shown that posture has a direct link to how you feel, while Ohio University found that people who sat up straight were more likely to believe in their own abilities than those who slumped.

The phrase “fake it until you make it” really does apply to leadership, and by simulating the body language of confidence it seems you can inspire the feeling in yourself. But which key signifiers should you start aping? Dr Goman emphasises the importance of upright posture, open shoulders, smooth gestures below chest height and claiming physical space by standing or walking around as you talk. Citing the Harvard and Colombia studies, she even espouses the benefits of preparing for a leadership situation by adopting a two-minute power pose, hands on hips and legs wide, Superman style. This apparently leads to hormonal shifts and a greater tolerance of risk. Best to do it in private, though.

“When we first meet a leader, we judge them in two stages,” says Dr Goman. “The first is warmth and empathy and the second is power and status.” Such is our macho business culture that many leaders focus on the latter and neglect the former. “The impact of empathy and warmth is more important than most leaders know, especially in today’s collaborative environment,” she says. The body language of leadership is not all about domination, so make sure you use lots of posture mirroring, eye contact and nodding to show ongoing engagement.

Dealing with drama

So, you’ve learnt about the pitfalls of non-verbal communication, mastered the art of the first impression and expressed your leadership qualities through a power pose or two, but what happens when it comes to conflict? It’s an inevitable part of office life and every good leader needs to know how to defuse these moments with grace. Unfortunately, your body is your own worst enemy when it comes to combat.

We’re all familiar with the feeling of fight or flight, where your breathing quickens, heart pounds, face flushes, neck stiffens and jaw sets. This is your body trying to help you out. It senses danger and releases a torrent of hormones to prep for sudden action. What might have been useful on the open savannah a few hundred millennia ago is not so helpful when doing battle in the boardroom, however, so when it comes to conflict at work, it’s all about dominating your natural physical response.

“During conflict, it’s important to be really aware of your body position,” says Dr Goman. “The natural instinct is to square up to someone, which escalates the situation. By angling your body slightly instead, you are, in effect, aligning your body to that of the person with whom you are having difficulty. Doing so eases the tension.” Focusing on your body rather than your emotional response will also create some distance from the drama and give you more perspective and power over the situation. The arcane art of body language is far more complex than most of us realise, but by becoming more aware of its power and pitfalls, we can all get an edge in the office.


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