Well before humans spoke words, body language was embedded in our genetics.
And since time is a luxury when you’re trying to determine whether someone poses a deadly threat, our expression and judgment of body language was (and still is) automatic by default.
But, as author Carol Goman explains in The Nonverbal Advantage, “To accurately decode [nonverbal cues], you need to interrupt your automatic judgment system and analyze your impressions.”
In short, to use body language effectively at work, in meetings, or any other context, you have to manually reset your default settings. You have to become aware of your own and others’ gestures, expressions, and posture.
You have to deconstruct what is largely instinctual into its component parts. And then you have to rebuild.
In this post, that’s what we’ll do.
We'll start by reviewing the building blocks of body language. Then we’ll dive into how to read other people’s and your own body language.
Along the way, we’ll pepper in body language tips while exploring what you need to do to use body language to your advantage and be a better communicator at work.
We’ll let the academics argue the semantics of body language—and they will.
But, without diving too deep into that argument, you should understand that when most people talk about body language, they conflate it with other nonverbal communication such as the use of touch and physical distancing.
Both touch and distancing are important, but our main focus is body language, which—strictly speaking—includes the following aspects:
Emblems are the body gestures you make to communicate a specific message, like a hitchhiker’s raised thumb. Illustrators are the gestures you make to enhance the message you’re communicating, like raising your arms as you declare victory.
Adaptors are gestures that are often unconscious and may indicate arousal or anxiety, like twirling your hair, clicking a pen, or fidgeting with your phone.
People make most of their gestures with their hands and arms but also with their heads, shoulders, and other body parts.
You can use direct eye contact to get someone’s attention and indicate that you’re ready to speak or you want them to speak. Most importantly, you use it to gain trust. In one study, “Participants were more likely to believe statements by a speaker looking at them directly, compared to a speaker with averted gaze.”
But one study indicates that it’s the face that’s a clearer reflection of emotion. In that study, participants were asked to judge a person’s emotional state based on only facial expressions vs. only body expressions.
For the emotions of surprise, sadness, disgust, and happiness, the participants were more accurate when they only saw faces. For the emotions of anger and fear, participants were only slightly more accurate when they only saw faces.
Within those four are many variations. You might be standing or sitting with your shoulders slumped, arms crossed, or your chest out. You could be lying in the fetal position (hopefully not at work) or squatting with your head down and hands over your face.
Each posture and its variations communicate a wide range of potential messages. As do expressions, eye contact, and hand gestures.
Different people have different communication patterns that should inform your interpretation of body language. Context and culture also change the range of meanings that are attributable to a given expression of body language.
So it’s not enough to know and recognize the building blocks of body language; that’s just the start. What you need is a filter, which author Carol Goman provides.
As I mentioned in the introduction, our nonverbal judgment system developed in ancient times. This was long before the modern complexity, social restrictions, and the nuance of interpersonal communication took hold.
Layer in the unique nature of corporate culture, virtual meetings, and it’s easy for your subconscious mind to lead your first impressions astray. Fortunately, author Carol Goman has a solution called “The Five C’s.”
The Five C’s are filters through which you can run your first impressions to “improve your ability to read body language.”
Here’s a summary of how she describes these filter and the body language tips you can take away from them.
You can’t understand someone’s behavior without considering the circumstances (i.e. the context) under which that behavior occurs.
If I’m sitting underneath my desk hunched over with my knees pulled into my chest and shivering, the message I’m sending is: I’m in distress. If I’m sitting at a bus stop on a frigid winter night in the same position, the message is: I’m cold.
If you’re looking away from me during a virtual meeting, I know you’re looking at your screen rather than ignoring me.
Context also relates to your relationship with the people you’re interacting with. Your body language will change depending on if you’re talking with your boss, colleague, client, or subordinate.
Takeaway: When assessing body language, context is a key consideration.
Nonverbal cues happen in gesture clusters, which are groups of movements and postures that reinforce a common point. Goman explains:
“A single gesture can have several meanings or mean nothing at all, but when you couple that single gesture with other nonverbal signals, the meaning becomes clearer.”
If your colleague crosses her arms, scowls, and turns away from you, she’s likely resisting whatever you just said. If she only crosses her arms, that may be just the position she feels more comfortable in at that moment.
Similarly, your friend’s slight smile from across the room at a work event means something different if it's accompanied with steady eye contact vs. raised eyebrows.
Takeaway: Remember to look for body language “clusters”. It’s much easier and effective to read someone based on their overall demeanor rather than a single gesture.
In an often-misconstrued but classic study, Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA found that when communicating feelings and attitudes the impact of the message is based on:
This exemplifies the importance of congruence in body language. When the words someone speaks are congruent with their body language, they’re likely speaking the truth.
The inverse scenario is also true.
Just imagine you’re coaching a manager to delegate more responsibility. Suppose she lists the reasons she should delegate more but you notice that each time she lists these reasons, she shudders slightly.
Chances are, her shudder is a cue that, while she might say she’s willing, she either doesn’t want to delegate or she’s very unsure about it.
Takeaway: When the messages of someone’s words and body language don’t match, bias yourself towards the message sent through body language.
Earlier I mentioned that different people use body language differently. That’s why it’s important to understand what Goman calls a person’s “baseline behavior” under relaxed conditions.
Once you understand someone’s baseline, you can more accurately compare it with their behavior in more stressful situations.
This is why skilled police interrogators often ask innocuous questions to start their interrogation. They’re observing the respondent’s behavior when there’s no reason to lie or mislead. Then, when the officer asks more difficult questions, the officer has a baseline to compare to.
Try this technique by paying attention to your colleagues. Notice how they look when they’re relaxed. What’s their typical body posture? What hand gestures do they use? And how much do they make eye contact?
Takeaway: You can compare your colleague’s baseline to how they appear in virtual meetings, during presentations, on sales calls, and other stressful scenarios to get a better read on them.
The culture of your heritage influences how you use your body to communicate. Just think of the stereotype of the stoic German or the Italian with wild hand gestures.
Beyond heritage, many subcultures also influence body language.
Career military personnel tend to have an upright, good posture. Ballet dancers are trained to stand with their chests out. And office workers often slump their shoulders due to long hours hunched over a keyboard.
Takeaway: As Goman explains:
The more you know about a person’s background, hobbies, and interests, the more you can understand why certain gestures or postures are part of her unique repertoire—and why deviation from these patterns is significant.
The first step in improving your use of body language in a meeting, presentation, and around the office is to become aware of it. Then, you need to figure out what you need to change.
Obviously, that’s going to be a personal journey unique to you. But as it turns out, The Five C’s provide a great mental model for assessing your own body language—which will give you much better results than a list of one-size-fits-all body language tips.
Here’s what I’d suggest:
Think of a work scenario, decide on the message you want to convey, and explore the nonverbal cues you could use to emphasize that message. Use The Five C’s to filter your ideas.
We’ll use a manager in a staff meeting as our example scenario.
Unbeknownst to you, your new manager is set on disposing of what used to be a rigidly hierarchical exchange of information among your team members during staff meetings.
The message he wants to send you and your colleagues: dispose of hierarchy and exchange ideas.
Your manager begins every staff meeting by taking off his jacket and sitting in the chair in the center of the conference table rather than the head.
In the context of a meeting with subordinates, so far, his body language is consistent with his message: dispose of hierarchy and exchange ideas.
Your manager isn’t done. He starts the discussion and the first speaker chimes in.
Your manager leans forward, nods approvingly, and makes full eye contact. He repeats this pattern with every speaker.
The manager’s cluster of behavior (leaning forward, gesturing, full eye contact) reinforces and is congruent with his message: dispose of hierarchy and exchange ideas.
Had your manager, until this meeting, been known for his strict adherence to chain of command, even his otherwise flawless body language would’ve been inconsistent and likely received with suspicion.
If you can’t think of your own scenario, pay close attention to your own body language next time you’re at work. Even better, watch a recording of yourself on a video call and analyze your body language as we did above. Then, make the adjustments you need to.
In certain scenarios, especially at work, you need to hide certain underlying negative emotions that might “leak” out into your body language. For instance, imagine you find out a trip you were really looking forward to is canceled as you’re heading into a client meeting.
It could be disastrous if your body language indicated your disappointment. The client might think you don’t believe in what you’re saying or you’re not engaged in the task of helping them—even if neither of those things is true.
The trouble is, body language communicates your feelings more than anything else. And if you let it slip, you’ll fall victim to what academics have unappetizingly termed, “nonverbal leakage.”
This can lead to misunderstandings or otherwise less-than-ideal communication.
In Body Language, Author James Borg recommends:
Before you interact with others, you should take a moment to analyse your own emotional state. What is it? Impatient, angry, anxious, resentful.
Each of these, for example, will influence the way that you address other people and body language leakage will arise and may cause problems. So you need to manage or control these signals.
Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase “The medium is the message.”
McLuhan was referring to different types of media like print, television, and film. But the concept holds for human communication: your body is a message.
Your lean forward, proper posture, and hand gestures all matter. Whether in a video meeting or in-person, your body sends messages indicating when you’re actively listening and fully engaged or checked out and aloof.
Keep that in mind and you’ll be a much better communicator. To be even better, especially in meetings, focus on preparing well. The more prepared you are, the calmer you are, and the better you can use your body language to your advantage.
To help your preparation, try using one of our many free meeting agendas to structure your next meeting.
Getting your team to open up might be easier than you think.
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