"I speak two languages, Body and English," iconic actress Mae West once said. "The body never lies," added famed choreographer Martha Graham.
Body language is a powerful tool. We had body language before we had speech, and a lot of what you understand in a conversation is read through the body – not the words. Control of communication through both speech and body is essential for success in your career.
Said Alan Guinn, Managing Director of The Guinn Consultancy Group:
"Non-verbal communication is the strongest way we communicate in our work environment. As a matter of fact, things which are communicated non verbally are even more effective, in most cases, than direct, verbal communication. Remember the old saying, "Do as I say and Not as I do?" It could almost be changed to "Do what I show you— with what I do." The ability to readily interpret body language is essential for communication. So much of what is communicated is not communicated with words."
So let's pick up the phone with the experts and discuss some of the common areas where body language can be interpreted incorrectly in business – and how we can use understanding of body language to our advantage.
We say we are listening but clearly we have our body turned away. The reverse is when it is someone we respect or like we fully face them, lean forward and perhaps touch them lightly if we agree on a point or view they share, said Darla Arni, author, speaker, and attitude expert.
Arms and legs: crossed arms clearly say you're not agreeing or interested or are guarded while your words may say 'sure that's a good idea and I will get back to you on that.' However, crossed body parts can also mean you are nervous and need to protect yourself until you feel more secure communicating.
Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consulting and author of the latest book, Creating Personal Presence: How to Look, Think, Talk, and Act Like a Leader, says in order to take command, stand straight with equal weight on your feet, head in a neutral pose.
If you want to show a little dominance – say, when a heated discussion breaking out in a meeting you're facilitating – stand in the foot-forward position. Shift your weight to one hip and the forward foot to where you need to extend control. Down through the centuries, the foot-forward was a sign of exposing your full front without a shield of protection. Alternatively, hands clasped behind the back with the chest thrust forward can be a stand of confidence.
Avoid the head tilt
Roshini Rajkumar, communication and image coach who has worked with groups including the Minnesota Vikings, said that for women especially, the head tilt can be disastrous. "This is a sign of subservience. Women need to squarely look people in the eye both when they are speaking and when they are listening. Obvious examples of this include business head shots in which women tilt their bodies and heads. Anchorwomen are often noticed tilting their heads when delivering the news. Diane Sawyer is a BIG example of this. She’s such a rock star in the industry, yet she has this poor nonverbal behavior."
For women, always think of Tess in Working Girl.
Vivian Scott, author of Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies, said wardrobe choices are so important because they "say" a lot about an individual. "There's no need to mirror male counterparts with a suit and tie, but choosing items that are too cutesy or overtly sexy can make others question your abilities as they stack up against your peers'. If you're dead set on creating a signature style, choose items like shoes and satchels that set you apart."
Diane Gayeski, Dean of the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College and professor and consultant in business communications, said "Dress as if you're already at the next level in your organization - take cues from what successful women in your organization wear, especially at one or two levels ABOVE where you are. Dress as if the most important client- or your next employer- were going to meet you today. Don't dress like a 'trophy wife' – avoid excessive jewelry, expensive outfits, etc. As sexist as it may be, people may get the impression that you don't really need money or a promotion – or that what you spend time on is your own pampering rather than career-oriented pursuits. And of course, avoid anything that can look 'sexy'."
"Wimpy handshakes or extending only part of your hand as if the other person is supposed to bow and kiss it says you may not be up for the job. It's a first impression you may have to work hard to overcome. It's easy to work on a firm, confident handshake that includes direct eye contact," said Vivian Scott.
Closed door meetings
Closed door meetings. Too many private conversations that cause others to read body language inaccurately can send the message that you're either up to your "wiley ways" or in over your head and needing someone to hold your hand, said Vivian Scott.
General attention cues
We feign attention yet continue shuffling papers, taking texts, etc. during a conversation, said Arni. This shows the person you put them as less of a priority.
Clearly a clue of how someone feels about you and can tell so much more than the words they choose to share.
You do not want to overpower people with your body language. Some people automatically talk with their hands (I am one of these people), but this can be interpreted as aggressive. You have to be conscious of it. McDonald said, "Having your palms up and extended towards the person communicates confidence and is inviting."
She said if you are on an interview or with a new client try to mirror the person. "Because you are on stage but they are in control. You want to make sure people are comfortable around you. People that are similar draw other people in that are similar. A shy person is not going to be drawn to a very active person with a ton of hand movements."
A few extra tips for non-verbal communication
Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability and certified coach and the founder of Executive Essentials, suggests these three exercises to tweak your habits:
1) Learn more: The best way to find out how you communicate with your body is to watch yourself on video. Make note of the things you are naturally doing well and where you could use improvement. If you don’t have video footage of yourself, just ask some people who know you well what your common fidgets and general mannerisms and body language.
2) Pay attention: Watch the body language of those around you and learn from it. If you observe things that resonate with you in a positive way, try using them.
3) Pick and choose: Choose two nonverbal signals that you wish to work on and practice them. This could be anything from smiling while you talk to not slouching or crossing your arms.