I recently posted about ways that women tend to give away their power. One of the topics broached in that article that I find perplexing is the non-verbal communication and cues that we give out without realizing it. If we’re not aware of it, but it may be limiting our effectiveness or influence, how can we correct it?
The first step is always awareness, so that is my intention with this post: to increase awareness of some of the non-verbal signals we give off, particularly with body language, and what impact they may have. Only then can we notice whether we actually demonstrate those traits, and try to create new habits over time, if needed.
People interpret how we hold our bodies, our “body language.” If someone is slouching, they often appear to be trying to make themselves look small; this is interpreted by others as a lack of confidence or conviction, or even that the person is insignificant. On the other hand, someone who stands, or takes up more space in the room appears dominant, confident, and in charge. This comparison is particularly critical for women, who are taught that small (thin, petite, etc.) is more desireable in a woman. We are not taught to try to appear bigger than we are, but more likely the message has been to try to appear smaller.
Another comparison of styles that does not always help women is that historically we were taught to cross our legs to indicate being demure, feminine, and possibly to show off our legs. However, any gesture that implies the protection of the midsection (think underbelly) reflects weakness or discomfort. Crossing the arms or legs can both be interpreted being somewhat defensive or infer a weaker position than the other person.
The next time you’re in a meeting, pay attention to your shoulders, arms, and legs in particular, and see what they say about you. Do they communicate a relaxed confidence or something closer to defensiveness? Then practice adjusting your posture and body language before entering a room, and notice any differences in how you are received and perceived by others.
Facial expressions can give away a good deal about what we’re thinking, even when we don’t think we’ve changed anything in our demeanor. For example, boredom, interest, embarrassment, frustration, skepticism and much more can usually be read on our faces. From our eye position to how we hold our mouth or our brow, much is communicated to the people we are with.
This observation is not meant to imply that you should attempt to hide your expressions — guilt is often shown by an expressionless face, possibly combined with an avoidance of eye contact. Trying too hard to control your facial expressions, therefore, may have an unintended and even more detrimental impact as the other person may perceive you as deceitful!
However, if we are aware of how much we give away in our expressions, we can at least try to minimize the impact. For example, if we’re angry but don’t want to incite anger or defensiveness in the other person, we can try to relax our brow and mouth to soften the expression while we explain our viewpoint.
Stress can impact how we’re seen in a myriad of ways. If you’re buried at work and rushing through tasks, you may miss some minor nuances of your appearance (a stray hair, a button that you forgot to do up, etc.). If you’re worried or under stress, that can show up in facial tension, raised shoulders, and our facial expressions.
Women in particular tend to play with their hair. This gesture is often self-soothing, but because of that, it also can give the subconscious message that the person is worried or uncomfortable. Similar gestures might also include rubbing the neck, massaging a hand, or holding an earlobe.
When the person next to us appears calm, cool and collected, but we’re exhibiting signs of stress, it lessens our impact on the situation, and decreases our ability to exert influence. Notice and manage stressors and fatigue proactively and take some time to calm and center yourself before an important meeting.
Salespeople have known for a long time that if they act very differently from you, that it will be harder to create a rapport and therefore make a sale. However, if they slightly adjust their speaking speed, gestures, and body language to more closely match your own, you will unconsciously relax and feel a connection. This is called “mirroring” and the effect is that you give an impression of being “on the same page” or more like the person you’re talking to.
Do you adjust your style when you’re in the room with someone else? Be aware of when others use the mirroring technique and its effect; mirroring can be an effective communication tool that can increase your ability to influence others. There is a fine line between doing this effectively, however, and simply appearing like a creepy copy-cat, so exercise restraint and judgement when practicing this strategy, or it could backfire.
Image and Style
While not exactly body language, how we dress can also have an impact on our non-verbal communication, and how we’re perceived. While we’d like to think external factors don’t impact people’s views of our abilities, unfortunately they do. If you’re dressed like the summer intern, that will give a different impression than if you’re dressed like an up-and-coming manager. If one of your strengths is creativity, but your clothing is conservative and stuffy, it will be harder for others to recognize the extent of your creative brilliance.
Some of the areas presented in this article are easier than others to maintain awareness and modify our behaviors, while others are deep-seated and subconscious. Some of them are clearer-cut in terms of what we need to do to change perceptions. And each person may be strong in some areas and have challenges in others. But we all have moments in life and business where we wonder, “Was I not clear? How was I misunderstood?” And perhaps we can use those as opportunities to look more closely at our non-verbal communications to see if we are sabotaging our message in some unconscious way.