How aware are you of the unconscious messages you are giving to the person or people you are communicating with? Do you apply as much careful thought to your body language as you do to the words you are speaking to them? We all use a huge range of physical movements and gestures and they all have the capacity to strengthen, limit or even harm your message. It’s all about being constantly aware and being open to feedback and improvements.
How about your posture? Is it positive, neutral or negative? If your posture is positive you may have a direct gaze (not a stare), a broad smile and a friendly style – enhanced by leaning forward or placing your hands on your hips, for example. In neutral, your gaze may be the same, but your stance and/or hands will be less direct or confident, instead perhaps down by your side. This can be an appropriate stance for first contacts and meetings, whereas positive posture is something to use once you are more familiar with someone or you need to be more assertive or confidently persuasive. Both are better than the negative option: which has an indirect gaze; and there is touching or ears or nose (as if they are more important than your subject), a slight turning away, or looking at the door or out of the window. All show you’d rather be doing something else, somewhere else, or you have stopped listening altogether.
Keep your distance too. Personal space is about 1m or 3 feet around a person. Although this changes with cultural and gender differences. It has also been transformed recently through COVID-19 social distancing. So be aware and read the signs. Often, if people feel you’re getting too close, they will move. But what if they can’t move, are they looking uncomfortable? You should move for them.
One major challenge is if we’re feeling nervous or uncomfortable ourselves, our body language can leak it. It can freeze us to the point where all the good practice we know just doesn’t manifest itself. One tip is to take a slow breath to relax yourself. And we are usually at our most nervous when we are trying to make a good first impression. We all know how important they are, whether we are meeting an important person, having a difficult conversation with a member of staff or parent, or are being interviewed ourselves. The first five seconds are key. So have a five second plan. How are you going to stand, where are you going to stand, how are you going to hold your hands, and how are you going to look and smile at the person or people you are trying to impress? After that it could be a comfortable downhill ride!
The problem is we don’t always have the awareness we need, and we don’t often have the benefit of looking at ourselves in our day-to-day work. Video is one solution, but not all of us like to watch ourselves on screen. With the explosion of use of video chats and meetings, we are being constantly confronted with images of ourselves interacting with others. Our body language behaviours normally hidden in a ‘phone call are now available for people to see. Feedback is the next best thing. How about making it the focus of your next peer observation review? Ask a colleague to look at your body language and feedback. It can make a tremendous difference.