If there is an inconsistency between body language and speech, research shows that the listener will believe the message conveyed through body language over that which is said. Body language is louder than words. We have all been in the situation where a friend tells us everything is fine, and we know darn well it is not. How do we know? Their body language.
The Washington Post ran an article on President Tump’s body language, stating that reporters find it more telling than any statements he makes. His handshakes indicate what he thinks about other world leaders and his facial expressions are much more honest than his words.
Body language seems obvious when we see it. It accounts for more than 55% of communication. When are listening to others, we are constantly reading body language, including facial expressions, posture and hand motions. Sometimes this listening is subconscious and other times we are well aware that what somebody is wearing or how they are standing is making an impression on us.
Yet, we tend to be less aware of the nonverbal messages we are sending. If we are going to a job interview or a momentous occasion, then we think about what we are going to wear, but that is often the only time. And rarely do we think about how we are sitting in a chair or waiting in line is making an impression on others. Our facial expressions are mostly automatic and don’t always give the impression we want to give, hence the term ‘resting bitch face’ was born.
According to Deborah Gruenfeld, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business,
“When most people are preparing for a situation where they want to have influence, they tend to think a lot about what they say. Rather than thinking about what you are going to say, you need to think about what your body is telling people.”
In the academic arena of Communication Studies, there are six elements of nonverbal communication.
• Appearances & Artifacts – your physical looks, what you wear, and your accessories
• Kinesics – how you hold and move your body and your facial expressions
• Haptics – how you touch other people to communicate
• Proxemics – the distance you stand or sit in relation to other people
• Chronemics – how you use time to communicate
• Paralinguistics – your voice qualities including pitch, volume, and pace
Since body language plays significantly in the power relations of communication, let’s consider a few examples and the how the nature of power is determined by nonverbal communication, using American social norms as the basis.
What is more powerful, a red dress/tie or a blue dress/tie?
What is more powerful, chest high and shoulders back or slumped shoulders?
What is more powerful in a meeting, standing or sitting?
What is more powerful, a loud voice or a soft voice?
What is more powerful, being last to arrive or first to arrive?
If you answered the first item every time, you are right, and I bet that little quiz was super easy. We all know strong body language when we see it, but that doesn’t translate in to us using the body language we know is strong. With a bit more awareness that can change.
Awareness and intention are key. First, spend a month just being aware of your nonverbal communication. Notice how you sit and stand and the qualities of your voice. Ask your friends or coworkers what habits you have. Do you sit forward or lean back in your chair? Do you interrupt others or rarely speak in meetings? After a bit of self discovery through awareness, set intentions. If you want to be respected in meetings, sit upright and speak loudly. If you want to show respect for others, don’t interrupt and nod your head when they are speaking. Gruenfeld speaks of Playing High using authoritative body language, such as taking up maximum space, and Playing Low using approachable body language, such as smiling frequently. You need both skills and you need the wisdom to know when to apply each.
Observe others you admire in your life and notice what body language they are using and when, and then emulate them. Above all else, remember that your body language speaks louder than your words.