Carol Kinsey GomanIt was during the break of a Master Class I was giving on Body Language That Sells when the sales manager approached me. He’d hired me because he saw that the most successful salespeople were also proficient at displaying and reading body language, and he wanted to help his team develop this set of skills.

“I understand the sometimes-subtle ways our bodies reveal our emotions,” the manager began, “and, as a leader, it has helped me in so many ways. I’ve even learned to gauge my team’s trust in one another by how they hold their coffee cups.”

He went on to explain that he was aware people could create a barrier by holding items in a way that blocks their bodies and distances them from others. With his team, he found the more insecure an individual felt, the higher they held their coffee. Team members with their hands held at waist level were more comfortable than those with hands chest high.

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Of course, he knew what all salespeople quickly learn: potential clients and customers can create a similar lack-of-trust barrier by protectively folding their arms across their chests and crossing their legs.

During our session, we looked at various ways to neutralize this nonverbal display of resistance in a one-on-one encounter. Reaching out for a handshake, offering your business card, or handing a product sample or brochure will encourage people to change their body language in order to respond. Because body positions influence attitude, the mere act of unwinding a resistant posture will begin to subvert the resistance itself.

I love hearing from audience members after I speak. That was true at a recent Body Language for Women Who Lead keynote when an audience member told me she’d never realized how a slight head tilt might be sending a big message.

As I told her then, “It’s all a matter of realizing how specific body language cues are most likely to be perceived in various circumstances.”

Tilting your head to one side is a warm, pro-social body language signal that you are listening and involved – and, by the way, women use head tilts more than their male counterparts. In situations where you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying, it’s a very positive gesture of empathy and inclusion.

But head tilts are also subconsciously processed as a sign of submission. (Dogs, for example, tilt their heads to expose their necks and show deference to a dominant animal.) When the situation requires you to project power and confidence – as when asking for a job promotion or giving a presentation to senior management – you’ll look more credible if you keep your head straight.

Another audience member told me, this time at a Body Language for Leaders program, he’d learned what not to do by watching another leader make a fundamental body language mistake: “I was in an important meeting, and the leader was telling the group how much he welcomed any input we could provide. But at the same time, he was using both his hands to nonverbally push the entire group away. The amazing thing was that he repeated this sequence several times, always saying that he would welcome our input while making the same “push-back” gesture. It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. Instead, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the importance of verbal and nonverbal alignment.”

Research explains why this alignment has such an impact on an audience. Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event-related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s being spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language.

So, in a very real way, whenever leaders say one thing and their gestures indicate another, they don’t make sense. When your body language doesn’t match your words (dropping eye contact or glancing around the room while trying to convey candour, rocking back on heels when talking about the organization’s solid future, or physically pushing back when inviting people to contribute), your verbal message is lost.

In my body language programs, I review several reasons why we make mistakes when reading nonverbal cues, including forgetting to consider the context in which the body language is displayed, not knowing the person’s “baseline,” and not acknowledging our own personal and cultural biases.

But one less well-known mistake concerns the fact that the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than positive ones. This means two things for leaders:

  1. People you work with constantly try to evaluate your state of mind by monitoring your body language and are mainly on the alert for any sign indicating you’re in a bad mood or that something is wrong. For example, you may check your text messages because you are waiting for an important announcement, but don’t be surprised if people jump to the conclusion that you are uninterested in what they are saying.
  2. You are equally susceptible to negative bias, which may have you misinterpreting the frown on your boss’s face as a response to you personally – when, in fact, it was caused by a headache.

Body-language savvy is how leaders can gain a nonverbal advantage. Good body language skills can help you understand people’s emotions and motives, bond with your team, and heighten your ability to influence and impact others. That’s a powerful set of skills for any leader to develop.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.

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