The effective use of body language plays a key role in effective leadership communication. Here are some tips I’ve learned and practised during the past three decades of teaching and mentoring students and consulting business leaders and their teams around the world:
To boost your confidence, assume a power pose
Research at Harvard and Columbia Business Schools shows that simply holding your body in expansive, “high-power” poses (leaning back with hands behind the head and feet up on a desk, or standing with legs and arms stretched wide open) for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone—the hormone linked to power and dominance—and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Try this when you’re feeling tentative but want to appear confident. In addition to causing hormonal shifts in both males and females, these poses lead to increased feelings of power and a higher tolerance for risk. The study also found that people are more often influenced by how they feel about you than by what you’re saying.
To increase participation, look like you’re listening
If you want people to speak up, don’t multitask while they do. Avoid the temptation to check your text messages, check your watch, or check out how the other participants are reacting. Instead, focus on those who are speaking by turning your head and torso to face them directly and by making eye contact. Leaning forward, nodding, and tilting your head are other nonverbal ways to show you’re engaged and paying attention. It’s important to hear people. It’s just as important to make sure they know you are listening.
To encourage collaboration, remove barriers
Physical obstructions are especially detrimental to collaborative efforts. Take away anything that blocks your view or forms a barrier between you and the rest of the team. Even during a coffee break, be aware that you may create a barrier by holding your cup and saucer in a way that seems deliberately to block your body or distance you from others. A senior executive told me he could evaluate his team’s comfort by how high they held their coffee cups. It was his observation that the more insecure individuals felt, the higher they held their coffee. People with their hands held at waist level were more comfortable than those with hands chest high.
To connect instantly with someone, shake hands
Touch is the most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue. Touching someone on the arm, hand, or shoulder for as little as 1/40th of a second creates a human bond. In the workplace, physical touch and warmth are established through the handshaking tradition, and this tactile contact makes a lasting and positive impression. A study on handshakes showed that people are two times more likely to remember you if you shake hands with them. The trade show researchers also found that people react to those with whom they shake hands by being more open and friendly.
To stimulate good feelings, smile
A genuine smile not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable, cooperative, and trustworthy. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the eyes, lights up the face, and fades away slowly. Most important, smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way.
To show agreement, mirror expressions and postures
When clients or business colleagues unconsciously imitate your body language, it’s their way of nonverbally saying that they like or agree with you. When you mirror other people with intent, it can be an important part of building rapport and nurturing feelings of mutuality. Mirroring starts by observing a person’s facial and body gestures and then subtly letting your body take on similar expressions and postures. Doing so will make the other person feel understood and accepted.
To improve your speech, use your hands
Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re talking, but when we wave our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as we talk can actually power up our thinking. Whenever people incorporate gestures into their deliveries, you will find that their verbal content improves. Experiment with this and you’ll find that the physical act of gesturing helps you form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences with more declarative language.
To learn the truth, watch people’s feet
When people try to control their body language, they focus primarily on facial expressions, body postures, and hand/arm gestures. Since the legs and feet are left unrehearsed, they are also where the truth can most often be found. Under stress, people will often display nervousness and anxiety through increased foot movements. Feet will fidget, shuffle, and wind around each other or around the furniture. Feet will stretch and curl to relieve tension, or even kick out in a miniaturized attempt to run away. Studies show that observers have greater success judging a person’s real emotional state when they can see the entire body. You may not know it, but instinctively you’ve been reacting to foot gestures all your life.
To sound authoritative, keep your voice down
Before a speech or important telephone call, allow your voice to relax into its optimal pitch (a technique I learned from a speech therapist) by keeping your lips together and making the sounds “um hum, um hum, um hum.” And if you are a female, watch that your voice doesn’t rise at the ends of sentences as if you are asking a question or seeking approval. Instead, when stating your opinion, use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.
To improve your memory, uncross your arms and legs
Body language researchers Allan and Barbara Pease report a fascinating finding from one of their studies: When a group of volunteers attended a lecture and sat with unfolded arms and legs, they remembered 38% more than a group that attended the same lecture and sat with folded arms and legs. To improve your retention, uncross your arms and legs. If you see your audience exhibiting defensive body language, change tactics, take a break, or get them to move—and don’t try to persuade them until their bodies open up.
If you follow these simple and powerful body language tips, you’ll surely increase your nonverbal impact.
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