Research has shown that in a face to face communication, when incongruity exists between what is being said and the way it is being said, only 7% of the message is actually conveyed through the words. We communicate 38% through the tone of our voice and a surprising 55% is communicated using our ‘body’ (Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55% rule). Body language is what we “convey” to each other without the use of words. Knowledge of body language can help us in correctly interpreting what the other person is trying to say at the work place. It can also help us in becoming more aware of our own body language. This awareness can help us manage it better in order to communicate effectively. By gaining a better understanding of how body language works and by working on making our body language positive, we can have more effective interactions and establish better relationships with our colleagues and customers.
Key Elements of Body Language
Body Posture: The way a person holds his/ her body can communicate a lot about a person’s state of mind.
Eye Contact: Eyes can reveal moods and feelings, as well as intentions and interest. We can tell a lot from the way a person holds your gaze or the lack of it.
Facial Expression: Our facial expression is perhaps the most easily read of all signs and also the most difficult to control.
Gestures: While movements/actions of our hands, legs and body can differ in their interpretation across geographies, most of them are easily understood and are defined in the cultural context.
Touch: Whenever applicable, the manner in which a person touches another can reveal a great deal about his/her character.
Personal Space: The distance maintained by a person while talking can indicate the level of trust and openness between individuals. Every person has a well-defined personal space around him/ her known as the body buffer zone. The distance increases as the intimacy decreases.
Interpreting Body Language signs
Body language showing attentiveness: A person who is being attentive will listen closely and ignore distractions.The body posture is likely to be still rather than fidgety. He/she might lean forward a little bit towards the speaker with the head remaining slightly tilted.The gaze of such a person is mostly direct, without much blinking. A furrowed brow is often accompanied with such a gaze to indicate concentration, while slow nodding will indicate understanding and approval.
Body language showing aggression: Aggression can most easily be seen in a person’s facial expressions. Disapproving frowns, pursed lips and sneers can signal aggressiveness. Long and constant eye contact can be interpreted more as a ‘cold stare’. This is often accompanied with occasional narrowing of the eyes. The fists could be closed or clenched and he/she might invade the personal zone (by moving closer) without permission. Gestures such as finger pointing, banging closed fists on the table, standing in a tense and erect manner with arms held akimbo can mostly be interpreted as aggression.
When a person is lying: A person who is lying will avoid making prolonged eye contact. He/she might make eye contact for a very short while and then break the gaze and look away, and do this continuously. Hands touching face, throat and mouth in nervous gestures can also give away a lie. Expressions are limited only to the mouth movements, rather than the whole face echoing the same emotion which is being mouthed. A liar might unconsciously place objects (books, a coffee cup etc.) between themselves and you while conversing.
Boredom: A bored person will be distracted and will tend to fidget with objects around them. He/she will look away continuously from the person who is speaking. Tapping toes, swinging feet, drumming of fingers and stretching are considered to be actions associated with boredom. He/she may also slouch in the seat, or stand with sagging shoulders.
Some common interpretations: Relaxed posture, good eye contact, nodding in agreement, smiling/adding humour, leaning closer and gesturing warmly with palms open are generally interpreted as positive body language. Conversely, tense body, arms folded tersely in front, hand on face, fidgeting, impatient gestures, distracted gaze, leaning away and unpleasant facial expressions are counted as negative body language. Being seated at the edge of a chair, clearing the throat time and again while speaking, stammering, sweating etc. are mostly considered to be signs of nervousness.
Combinations count more than individual gestures: Body language counts more when a cluster of expressions are read in combination with each other rather than individually.
Social and cultural context: Interpretation of each body language element is governed by social and cultural context. For e.g. while pointing at things/another person is a common practice in the Western world, it is considered especially rude in China to point your forefinger publically.
Transitions are more important than positions: Interpreting transition from one body position to another is more meaningful than trying to read a single, continuous body position.
Masking: People often use various methods to mask their body language. While some body language is involuntary (e.g. sweating) and cannot be masked, some others (e.g. facial expressions) can be masked with continued practice. Close observation is the key here.
Mirroring: Mirroring of body language generally indicates agreement. During a discussion, the person opposite you might imitate/mirror your gesture or follow your change in posture to indicate that he/she is ‘with you’ or to make you comfortable and put you at ease.
Tips to communicate positively using Body Language
Stand straight with feet slightly apart and firmly planted in the ground. In case you are seated, occupy at least 80% of the chair and make sure you do not slouch.
Gesture with open hands while speaking.
Keep the hands away from the face.
For a small audience, maintain eye contact with as many individuals as you can while speaking. For a large group, make and hold eye contact with different sections of the audience.
Facial expressions should be in congruent with and at the same time as the words being spoken.
Try and vary the tone of your voice rather than speaking in a monotone.
Smile whenever and wherever applicable – it is the most universally understood body language!