Know What Your Body is Saying!

The CEO begs them once more, “We need new ideas guys.” While he speaks this sentence, every member of his top team averts their eyes, choosing instead to look at the floor, a report, or their smart phone. I’ve watched versions of this scene thousands of times. In this case, the history of dealing with ideas and innovation efforts under this CEO was clear: what he really meant was give me great new ideas that work immediately and do not fail. The team knew this very well. The CEO was well known as a person who did not embrace the learning and failure associated with innovation. Averting their eyes was a largely unconscious negative reaction to what they knew the CEO really meant.

In the instance described above, I was an observer – the team’s coach. Not only were the team members unaware of their unsupportive nonverbal response, but the CEO did not notice their reaction either. Every so often we get serious about the importance of communication as a vital part of leadership and professional life. Unfortunately, we rarely put in the effort to become aware of our nonverbal ticks and we rarely take the time to ponder the often loud nonverbal others show us every day.

Easily half of all communication is nonverbal in nature – but you have to look for it. I tell every professional this simple truth: others see you differently than you see yourself. Thus, the major steps for improving your nonverbal communication are 1) understanding your most common (positive and negative) nonverbal behaviors, 2) establishing more positive nonverbal behaviors, and 3) learning to read others’ nonverbal signals.

Let’s start with you. I want you to commit to three things. First, find a coach. Pay for one, or find a great colleague who is willing and able to be your coach. Make sure they honestly understand nonverbal behavior. Have the coach observe you professionally in multiple contexts and give you brutally detailed feedback about your nonverbals – the good and the bad. Second, reinforce this by getting yourself captured on video giving a couple presentations (from head to toe if possible). What you see might surprise you – lack of eye contact, poor posture, odd hand wringing, lack of positive facial expressions, etc. Finally, to put all of this feedback to good use, you must stop any form of multitasking while you are communicating. When communicating in real time with others you only focus on one task – communicating effectively!

Once you gain some comfort recognizing and controlling your nonverbals, only then is it time to start examining your colleagues. Start by buying a copy of What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro. Joe is a retired FBI agent and one of the founders of the famous Behavioral Analysis Program. In this quick read, he clearly explains many of the basics of nonverbal communication. He covers all major areas of the body and the most common and useful nonverabls to understand. The book is mostly focused on understanding signs of deception, but for my money, it is the best intro and overview on nonverbals in general: which ones to look for, what drives them, what they might mean, etc.

The next task is tough, but it is a skill that can be learned – and practice helps! You must enter new communication contexts (for example, a meeting) with the goal of allowing yourself to spend as much time watching all of the nonverbal as you spend listening to the words being exchanged. At first, it will feel a little odd and keeping up with the words is a bit more difficult as you actively try to listen to both parts of the message at the same time. Over a few months, it becomes easy to simultaneously hear the words and watch the bodies. Believe me – when you first start watching the nonverbal behaviors, you might be surprised by the difference between the words and what the bodies are saying!

If nothing else, start by using and looking for the two most important nonverbal behaviors: eye contact and smiles. Solid eye contact usually tells others you are in the moment, confident, and competent (whether true or note). The opposite is true of lack of eye contact. Simply watching eye contact exchanges at meetings will often tell you a story that deviates from the words being exchanged. Smiles are a close second to eye contact. Few things help social dynamics more than positive emotions and the best way to create and maintain positive emotions in any context is to smile. If it is genuine, it is infectious and can prime your audience to feel positively predisposed to liking your message.

If you buy the last paragraph, realize this: there are fifty more common, knowable, and powerful nonverbals that you can recognize and manage. Here is your motivation: to be promoted into the supervisory ranks, you need to be not only great at your job, but a solid communicator. To be promoted into the executive ranks, you must be a very highly skilled communicator. Highly skilled communicators understand nonverbal behavior. Start working right now to ensure that you know what your body is saying and what the bodies around you are saying. Enjoy the conversation!


2 thoughts on “Know What Your Body is Saying!”

  1. User Avatar

    Yes, in my experience typical eye contact and other body language do vary quite a bit by culture. According to research one thing that doesn’t vary is facial expression, but it can be constrained in certain cultures and circumstances (regardless of culture).

    If you really want to experience the power of eye contact try this exercise recommended by Michael Ray’s book “Creativity in Business”. Sit facing your partner and silently make eye contact for 2 minutes.

    Yes, 2 minutes.

    It’s an amazing experience if you can manage it. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what you’re supposed to experience.

    Oh, and – yes – this is an experiment to do with WORK colleagues . . . and I have done it in my workshops. It’s the most daring exercise I’ve ever attempted.

    Enjoy! – Kimberly

  2. User Avatar

    Todd, great post. Two things come to mind for me. First, there are cultural differences of which one must be aware when dealing with elements like eye contact.In some cultures, direct eye contact is considered rude. We must keep this in mind when we judge others or when we want to show our attentiveness in a conversation. Second, we are deprived of non-verbal queues when we work virtually (phone conferences, email, instant messaging), unless we are lucky enough to have a hi-res video conference connection. Even today, some things just don’t work as well when you are not face-to-face.

    Thanks again.

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