Posted on by & filed under Business, communication, influence and persuasion, management, managing yourself.

By Theodore Kinni

Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

I’m usually oblivious to anything more subtle than a bonk on the head, but even I couldn’t miss the body language in a recent episode of a fair-to-middlin’ TV political drama. In it, an actress playing the U.S. Secretary of State, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress after single-handedly thwarting a coup in Iran, is meeting with an actor playing the President’s chief of staff, who wants her to make a high-stakes appearance on a national TV news program. The chief of staff presses her, asking if she is ready to do the show, and the actress, shaking her head, says, “Absolutely.” He walks away happy.

Clearly, the chief of staff has not read Body Language: It’s What You Don’t Say That Matters (Capstone, 2012) by Robert Phipps. “You’ll typically see this sort of incongruence between words and body language when people are under pressure to do something they don’t really want to do,” explains the UK-based body language expert. “It’s often accompanied by a ‘shoulder shrug,’ which generally indicates one of two things: either ‘indecision’, being caught between a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No;’ or an outright contradiction of the verbal ‘Yes’.”

Body language often speaks as loudly as words. In addition to providing managers with clues as to what their employees may be really thinking, body language also sends messages to employees about what their managers are really thinking. “Most people are oblivious, most of the time, to what their body is doing,” says Phipps. “If you are one of these people, you’ll be unaware just how much your body tells others about you. About your moods, emotions and attitudes.” In other words, if you are grimacing while glowingly announcing your team’s latest performance targets, you might be communicating something to them loudly and clearly, if unintentionally.

Phipps offers a simple acronym—YODA—to remind us how to put body language, and by this, he means all forms of non-verbal communication, to use in a way that works for us and not against us:

  • You: Be fully aware that the non-verbal signals you give off have an effect on others, and that your moods affects the signals you give out and, in turn, receive.
  • Observe: You are already observing body language at some level depending on your innate awareness of it. Now, start looking deeper at smaller details you may have been missing to expand your knowledge.
  • Decode: Work out what your observations mean in order to give yourself choices in handling different individuals and situations.
  • Adapt: Empower yourself by changing your behavior to get better results.

While Phipps takes a broad-brush approach to body language, covering greetings, meetings, presentations, sales, and negotiations, Carol Kinsey Goman, leadership coach and president of Kinsey Consulting Services, zooms in on leadership in her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead (Wiley, 2011). Like Phipps, Goman acknowledges the importance of a leader’s “curb appeal” in making good first impressions. Once your exterior accurately reflects your interior, she adds that you need to consciously and carefully match your physical movements and facial expressions to your messages.

Gorman drives home this lesson with the story of a senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company who spoke at a leadership conference she attended. After a terrific presentation, during which he clearly charmed the audience, he folded his arms across his chest and said, “I’m open for questions. Please, ask me anything.” Silence.

“Although his words commanded the audience’s conscious attention,” explains Gorman, “his gesture spoke distinctly, but covertly, to their limbic brains. Because his words and gesture were out of alignment, the audience became confused and unsettled. And when we humans are faced with conflicting verbal and nonverbal messages, we will almost always believe and react to the nonverbal message.”

If the exec actually wanted feedback, explains Gorman, he should have communicated warmth nonverbally “with open body postures, palm-up hand gestures, a full-frontal body orientation, positive eye contact, synchronized movements, head nods, head tilts, and smiles.”

The interesting thing about this story is that it doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal message the exec sent reflected his true feelings or not. He may have crossed his arms because he was cold or because that stance helps him think. What really matters is how the audience interpreted the message.

“This fact is crucial to the use of body language for leadership success,” declares Gorman, “body language is in the eye of the beholder. The impact of your nonverbal communication lies in what others believe you intend and how that perception guides their reactions.”

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