Republished with permission via MastersInCommunications.com
Are you a good communicator?
Is your grasp of the English language better than average?
Can you engage in a verbal back and forth that both informs and enlightens regardless of the subject you are discussing?
If you answered yes to any of the above, that’s fantastic!
Developing excellent speaking skills is a challenge for many of us. Outstanding verbal communication will take you far in both your personal and professional life.
But what you say and how you say it is only half of the equation.
Some of the most powerful means of communication require very few words if any at all.
Our bodies can express an array of emotions. How you carry and present yourself physically is just as important (and in some cases, more so) as being well-spoken.
What is Body Language?
Body language, also referred to as nonverbal communication, is how we interact with others without using words.
This interaction can be something as simple as a shift in weight when we’re standing or a more substantial gesture such as burying your face in your hands.
Regardless of the movement, nonverbal communication often conveys far more about your feelings than any words could, filling in the gaps of an individual’s communication style.
It can tell us if someone is a leader or a follower, engaged or disinterested, fearless or afraid, loving or detached.
But how exactly does the body speak? Can you train yourself to communicate better through your movements? Can you also learn to read the body language of others?
How to Communicate Without Words
Our ability to convey a wide range of emotions without the need to say a word stems from our bodies being incredibly complex machines.
Effectively, we are communication towers that can walk. The signals we send out to others have been refined over time so that most are universal and easily translated.
However, we are each unique, and so too is our physical communication style. To help you refine your nonverbal methods and techniques, let’s review the most common aspects of body language.
1. POSTURE AND POSITION
Are you an open individual? Or someone that is more closed off to others?
How you sit or stand, and the placement of your extremities while doing either can reveal the type of person you are. And it goes beyond simply maintaining a stiff spine.
The way you hold your head can communicate confidence or lack thereof.
The manner in which you walk matters too. Straight and upright displays a sense of purpose. Slouched and dragging your feet will send out a definite vibe of laziness or low energy.
Folded arms or crossed legs can quickly close you off to others. Power poses like placing your arms on hips, and feet facing forward, shoulder length apart can inspire respect.
Your posture and positioning is often the first impression an individual has of you, and the way you carry both will instantly communicate a lot about the type of person you are.
In general, gestures are the most explicit way to show nonverbal prompts, and our hands are some of the best indicators of positive and negative feelings.
From thumbs up and thumbs down to an okay sign or something a bit more profane, we can quickly convey multiple sentiments with the shape of our fingers.
Also, the common act of talking with your hands is a crucial component of gesture-based language.
Many people associate hand gestures while speaking with an excellent grasp of the subject matter. At the same time, it provides visual cues for an audience to follow, thereby keeping them engaged and drawn in with the presenter.
Think back to some of the best public speakers you’ve seen, and chances are high they incorporated hand movements into many of their speeches.
Though one aspect of hand gestures to remember is that when you travel abroad, those same gestures we reference for the US may not always translate the same for nonverbal communication in other countries.
3. PROXIMITY AND TOUCH
These could easily be two separate discussions, but in today’s society where personal space is more respected than at specific points in the 20th century, proximity and touch go hand in hand.
First, let’s start with the all-important handshake. Firm handshakes can infer a dominant, commanding personality. Anything less than enthusiastic can easily label that individual as disinterested and weak.
It’s good to find a middle ground with what often serves as our initial greeting with others. Firm and authoritative while not holding the grip too long will establish you as serious, committed and genuine.
When it comes to spacing, the distance you give others is very situational, and many times depends on the relationship you have with each other or the interaction that is required.
With co-workers and colleagues, you’ll want to read how others exert their physical presence. Some people very clearly put distance between themselves and others. This can be both a means to exercise power or to provide isolation.
However, working in groups or dealing with friendly acquaintances may close the proximity gap significantly.
You have your own level of comfort to consider too.
In general, a spacing of about 3 to 5 feet is acceptable for close proximity interactions or 5 to 10 feet if the situation is a bit broader.
For family, friends and significant others, the distance and touch rules obviously change. As we noted, it depends on the type of relationship and the comfort level the individuals have with one another.
4. FACIAL EXPRESSION
Your facial features when your mouth isn’t moving doesn’t exactly fall under the heading of body language, but it indeed leads the discussion when talking about nonverbal communication.
Let’s face it, nothing conveys (or betrays) your emotions faster than a roll of the eyes, a purse of the lips, or a raise of an eyebrow.
People may quietly recognize if you’re arms are crossed or buried in your pockets, but they will almost always acknowledge what’s written on your face.
It’s not unreasonable to say that more than any other type of nonverbal prompt, your facial expressions will be judged by others.
It makes sense too when you realize you can relate everything from anger and fear to joy and happiness with the expression on your face.
With that said, to improve your nonverbal communication, it’s good practice to train yourself to present facial expressions appropriate for the environment in which you find yourself.
A good rule is to avoid being overly emotional or too underwhelmed in public or professional settings. Save your most expressive facial reactions for private moments or when you’re around people you trust.
You don’t always need to keep a straight face, but it helps to have an engaged one.
Multiple Lines of Communication
Let’s go back to how complex and intricate we are as humans.
When you’re verbally communicating it’s relatively easy to extract emotions based on what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.
The “mixed signals” of communication tend to occur when we stop talking.
With body language, it can be a bit harder to extrapolate a definite feeling or mood from someone. Everyone possesses different mannerisms and therefore distinct communication styles.
For example, liars may be easy to spot thanks to an overly stiff posture, twitchy hands that are always rubbing a forearm or back of their neck, and eyes that may hold contact far longer than the average person.
However, this could also be indications of someone who is nervous or overly anxious or awkward about a subject or situation.
Therefore, when reading the body language of others, and displaying your own, take into consideration the movements as a whole, and not just one or two.
The context of the interaction is equally as important.
Similar to how you may alter your speech patterns and the words you use based on your audience and circumstances, adjust your body language as well. Realize that others may be doing the same.
Body Language in Your Professional Life
With few exceptions, business relies on relationships.
Whether it’s with customers, investors, partners, vendors, or fellow employees, how we interact with those with work with plays a huge role in our success or failure.
Disregarding how others view you in your interactions with them can lead to the following issues:
- Lack of respect or inability of others (particularly subordinates) to take you seriously.
- Difficult or uncomfortable working environment.
- Little commitment from others to meet requests you make.
- Disregard for your opinion in meetings or when conducting negotiations.
- Lost confidence in yourself leading to being ineffective around your peers.
Beyond what your body language conveys to others, knowing how to read a counterpart’s nonverbal cues is equally vital.
Close attention to facial expressions is the easiest way to interpret what someone is trying to tell you, but observing gestures and body shifts can also inform if someone is comfortable or not.
Further, if your job requires presenting to others or pitching sales, you need to ensure your audience is engaged.
Look for signs of disinterest like slouching, eyes that are unfocused or “daydreaming” and looking everywhere else but at you. Even doodlers, with heads down and pens scratching away, indicate you might need to perfect your presentation style.
More so than in most other environments, your body language at your place of work is key to ongoing success. Superiors want to see their employees open, upright and engaged with the tasks at hand, and knowing how to read others will allow you to get the most out of your interactions with them.
Body Language in Your Personal Life
With perhaps a few exceptions, the way you conduct yourself professionally is vastly different from who you are personally. This does not mean however that your communication skills, and more specifically your nonverbal interactions, are any less necessary.
We’re by no means handing out relationship advice, but it’s always a good practice to realize that just because your workday is over doesn’t mean the need to be an effective communicator also ended at the office.
Positive eye contact, appropriate proximity, and maintaining an open, welcoming posture will impart warmth and affection.
Hand holding or a touch on the shoulder or arm will also do well in preserving a closeness befitting the relationship.
Even in disagreements with your partner or a friend or family member, avoiding negative physical cues like blocking or turning your back, clenching your fist, or tossing your head aside or using dismissive hand gestures.
Maintaining your composure, and keeping any physical displays of anger or displeasure to a minimum will ensure a more civil discourse and help you repair the rift much sooner.
Modern day communication isn’t just limited to how well we speak. How we are perceived, and the manner in which we carry ourselves is equally as important.
Whether in a business setting or someplace more personal our nonverbal cues generate a much broader spectrum of emotion than the use of words alone.
Once practiced and refined, your body language will assure that you transcend simple conversation and build deep connections with whomever you engage.