Our body language is crucial to successful communication and yet it is one of the most overlooked components of business strategy. We prefer to focus on our business plans, our marketing drives and our spreadsheets, but we never stop to think about what our facial expression or posture is communicating or what our physical gestures and ticks might be saying about us. The fact is, no matter how impressive our words may be, if our body language is unconsciously sending out a negative message, we will more than likely lose the client, the deal and the opportunity.
Before we go further, let’s define exactly what I mean by body language. It is every single expression of your physical body apart from the words you use – though these are important too. It includes your breathing, posture, facial movements, gestures, voice, quality of eye contact and so much more than that. Your mind-set also plays a part in how your body language expresses itself. Conformist mind-sets that want to please are prone to apologetic thinking, which often straight-jackets your physiology. You literally shrink when you think badly of yourself, or you might puff out your body language to over–compensate for the weakness you feel. Emotions too are fundamental to strong body language. Though emotions are felt within the body, they always show up physically in how we move, stand, walk and talk. In fact, your emotions can be the deciding factor in how someone treats you. The body will never lie and you may think you are concealing how you feel, but the body broadcasts the truth for all to see. That is why the spectrum of our emotions needs to be fully felt and internally integrated if we are to have any hope of expressing ourselves with conviction. Given this complexity, we would be wise to work on all facets of our expression, including our emotions and mind-set, not just our physical parts.
Let’s consider for a moment a person who slumps, fidgets nervously, speaks in a flat tone and evades eye contact. Perhaps they’re facial expression is inscrutably frozen and their physical movements are closed and feeble. Psychologically, they avoid responsibility because they do not feel up to the job and will refuse to acknowledge their potential in case they stand out or make a “mistake”. Their body language reeks of fear and hardly breeds faith in their capability to lead or inspire. We see such a person as metaphysically small, ineffectual and weak.
Now imagine a person who moves in a more open manner, occasionally making relaxed eye contact and at times smiling warmly. Let’s assume they stand tall with their shoulders back and chest open, and there’s a sense of ease to their movements. Gone are the subconscious fidgets and micro-expressions that signify insecurity. This person takes up their space and refrains from physically shrinking in fear. In fact, their entire demeanour demonstrates the courage and strength necessary for leadership. They face the demands of business, eyes forward, without bracing against disaster. And they are willing to undertake the sacrifices necessary to transform their unformed potential into something incredibly productive. This is a person who genuinely inspires others. We tend to feel safer in their competent presence and have more faith in their ability to lead.
Obviously, body language is much more nuanced than these two extremes and people can come across in a whole myriad of ways with all sorts of personal limitations. Thankfully though, there is always scope for development and many practical avenues in which we can help ourselves grow into powerful convincing beings. This skill has never been more pressing given the increasingly chaotic pace of business life along with people’s ever decreasing attention spans. We absolutely must start attending to the power of all our non-verbal communication if we are to create any impact at all.
One of the most direct routes to empowering your communication is through the quality of your voice. Your personal voice is hugely important in the workplace and will play a large part in your degree of success. The pitch, timbre, volume and cadence of your voice, the speed with which you speak, and even the way you modulate pitch and loudness, are all influential factors in how convincing you are, and how people judge your character. Being able to lower your voice at just the right moment is an art form, as any decent actor will tell you, and not only enhances your credibility but lends you an air of intelligence. Filling your voice with genuine feeling imbues you with passion and conviction. And allowing spontaneity into your voice generates excitement and brings even the dullest material to life. If you allow your voice to dance in the danger of the unpredictable moment, you’ll snap even the most tired audiences out of their corporate slumber.
The difference between voice quality is very apparent in theatre actors. Two different actors will play Hamlet, but the one who convinces will be the one whose voice is the most resonant, authentic, expressive and rich. The same for business leaders: we prefer to listen to those who are more engaging as opposed to those who are monotone, inexpressive and flat. Aggressive voices that lack any sensitive undertones tend to push people away whilst softer voices that lack harder edges tend to imply weakness. Voices that fear disapproval tend to attract the very thing they fear and a flimsy voice with no emotion at all will simply not be heard. It is the voice that is strong, fearless, liberated and real that wins. We must fill our voices with our range and depth if we are to be taken seriously, if indeed we are to take ourselves seriously when we speak.
But excellent speaking skills only represent one half of leadership expression. You must also attend to your listening skills - or lack thereof. If we cannot listen to our peers, we will miss the hugely valuable information that others are often silently transmitting. It is precisely this information that will help us form our best response. A good listener is the rare person who can set aside their own pre-occupations to truly see another. When you can clearly observe the person or people before you, you will start to notice not only what they say, but also what they don't say. You’ll pay attention to the subtle micro-expressions displayed on their face and you’ll more accurately decode what the other is really feeling underneath it all. Once you train yourself and know what to look for, it becomes relatively easy to determine whether someone is feeling calm or anxious, trusting or suspicious, angry or evasive, or even whether a smile is truly felt—or born from insincerity. You’ll even know if someone is positive or whether they harbour less than benign intentions towards you simply by witnessing what their body is saying. With these highly specific body language observations, you are much more likely to attune to the other person, and either create the secure bonds crucial to a successful working life – or healthily power apart.
This level of listening develops our Emotional Intelligence; the intuition to ascertain more accurately the reality of a situation. If you can listen in this way, you’ll understand others more profoundly and be better positioned to motivate them. In turn, others will feel understood and will more likely want to work with you. But when Emotional Intelligence is lacking, we misinterpret our colleagues intentions, invent unfounded biases about them and fail to decipher what really makes them tick. Whole teams can descend into unspoken resentments and unnecessary strife when team leaders refuse to pay attention, listen closely and facilitate difficult yet meaningful conversations. We can of course attempt to gather this information about our teams through the usual outdated and totally unproven “personality tests” that proliferate most organisations still today. But their results will be, as ever, inconsistent, inaccurate and totally meaningless. Hello Myers-Briggs. People are far more complex than any of these costly yet binary tests allow us to think. And absolutely no amount of unscientific personality testing will ever beat the superior powers that Emotional Intelligence gives you.
It must be noted that while body language can offer more accurate insights into the emotional state of someone else, it cannot tell you why the person is exhibiting that emotion. We need to make this distinction. There is danger in assuming you know why someone is expressing a feeling. Yet many of us jump to these unsubstantiated conclusions - and we tend to assume the worst. Consider a high-pressured business meeting where you really hope to leave a good impression. If you anxiously read into the reactions of another person’s face rather than simply observe their reactions, you can end up provoking a host of unwanted responses within, such as self-doubt and insecurity. If enough stress is produced, you trigger your pre-limbic neural defence system that sets you up physically for fight, flight or freeze. Your brain literally prepares you for life or death and forgets you’re in a simple business meeting. Unless you can calm yourself down fast, you can kiss a good performance goodbye.
It’s imperative to nip this neurological chain reaction in the bud by reminding yourself firstly that you cannot ever accurately know what another person is thinking behind any expression. So why worry? And secondly, by realising the other person is more probably preoccupied with their own performance to even notice yours too closely. Both these mind-set reframes can help calm the nervous system and bring you back to reality. However, let us assume the worst; that the other person is unfairly judging you and it’s plain to see. The only appropriate response in this situation is to realise that their reaction speaks volumes about their proclivity to negativity and has no bearing on your self-worth. The ignorance and stupidity of others is no good reason for you to then start whacking yourself with an internal stick.
Let me repeat; Emotional Intelligence is about observing the micro-expressions of another without taking their responses to heart. This is a tough life-lesson. Many of us are programmed to think that the reactions of other people are somehow our fault. We are like sponges absorbing people’s opinions as fact and loosing our self-respect along the way. The key to strong leadership is thus a much greater objectivity as self-defence; realising that we alone are responsible for our own behaviour, not the behaviour of others, and that their reactions are solely about them. When we can be this objective, we are less likely to react to others with charged emotion. We can see people and situations more clearly. And we develop equanimity; a crucial attribute given the endless variety of differing personalities we have to deal with in business, along with their many conflicting agendas and individual triggers.
Emotional Intelligence also enables us to channel our anger assertively rather than aggressively or passively. And this massively impacts how we come across in the workplace. Anger is a tricky emotion and most of us do not know how to express it healthily in our personal lives, let alone at work. Yet, it is the person who can constructively direct their anger, say no and stand firmly behind their convictions, who looks and sounds strong. They command respect because they respect themselves and their body language communicates solid boundaries. It won’t even matter how such a person is standing, moving or sitting; their inner resolve emanates a consolidated physical presence that cannot be exploited. They have no need to act overly aggressive or play passive because a simple glance, gesture or well-timed word is enough. If you cannot uncover your capacity for anger, you won’t be able to assert your boundaries and your body language will invite manipulation. You’ll be walked over, taken advantage of and worse, left behind. Others will put you down because you let them. And your resentment will build, which, if unexpressed, will evolve into bitterness and self-defeat. We cannot control or change others - that’s a fools game. The only sensible solution in this complex world of ours is to focus on changing ourselves, expressing our selves constructively and learning to become strong.
Anger can also be felt positively as passion, the bite needed to commit ferociously to your dreams no matter what obstacles arise. Without that intention, your body language will express a spiritless mindset lacking the conviction necessary for success. Intention is power. You must know who you are, what you want and why it matters. You must define your heartfelt vision in order to refine your direction. In a play, the actor needs to know his super-objective otherwise they won’t know what they are fighting for or even why, and will soon enough kill any scene they unfortunately occupy. When you are clear and firm in your intention, your body language falls powerfully into place. You start to sizzle with a vibrancy that inspires others more than a scripted performance with rehearsed gestures ever could: Take note most politicians on the planet.
People find anger uncomfortable. They would rather bury their heads in the sand and pretend everything is ok than assertively command their space. Yet under the surface, their resentments silently fester. It is these unspoken resentments that drain meaning from our working lives and ultimately weaken our intention. Instead of speaking up for ourselves, we seek approval, play “nice” and simply exist at work with little emotional or physical backbone to buffer the inevitable pressure. And we need this buffer. How else are we supposed to assert our boundaries in the face of minor despots who dominate many working cultures? When we cannot express appropriate anger, we will be bullied, controlled and pushed around. We’ll continue to sit in work meetings letting others talk over us, lost in meandering agendas with no clear objectives. Yet we’ll not speak up for fear of rocking the corporate boat. Sound familiar?
The stress our bodies feel is further exacerbated by work cultures obsessed with “never showing weakness”. Notice how many people clamour to look strong on the outside, strutting around the office acting very important, when the reality is they feel the opposite. No wonder many of us report feeling like frauds, as if one day we will be mysteriously “found out” to be un-deserving of our position. This tragic feeling has been conveniently named “The Imposter Syndrome” as though it were somehow a disease or an illness we have caught. Make no mistake; it is simply our natural human response to the corporate world hell-bent on labelling vulnerability as weakness when it absolutely isn’t. In trying to hide your vulnerability, you actually become more contrived, compliant and weak. When you don’t bring your full self to work, you diminish the person you could be and your creativity suffers; few buy into you because you don’t buy into you. Not only that, when we waste our working lives pretending to be someone we are not, when we don’t speak our truth, our subtle micro-expressions, tone of voice and physical ticks will give us away in any case. The body never lies. And it is these subtle expressions that reveal our inner truth no matter how hard we try to conceal it.
This self-repression starts the very moment we decide to speak. We shallow breathe, brace our chests, lock our knees and sometimes set our facial expression so tightly that no warmth or light can escape. Some of us look as if our jaws have been super-glued together. By the time we open our mouths, we've already sunk the ship. Subconsciously, we are simply trying to protect ourselves from danger and judgement. We don’t want to be “got”. But all this self-interference actually does is sabotage our expressivity, pegging us down the hierarchy of strength, making us more, not less prone, to humiliating judgement. When we act like a frightened little mouse, people treat us as such. This creates a negative feedback loop further entrenching our feelings of inadequacy. We attract the very judgement we attempt to flee and our self-worth bleeds by the minute.
What to do? Well you might start by doing much less, or more accurately, interfering less with your natural mechanisms. There is enormous power in simply standing tall and breathing into your discomfort without trying to fix, modify or avoid it. Psychologically, you’ll be turning to face your fears rather than habitually run and you’ll own the moment rather than be governed by it. So simply breathe and pay full attention. Before you communicate, become aware of yourself: what you are thinking and how you are feeling. If it’s nerves you notice, then that is how you feel. If it’s boredom or excitement, then that too is how you feel. If it’s absolutely nothing at all, then that is your truth also. There is no “correct” thought or feeling. Just let yourself be whoever you damn well are in any given moment.
The trick is not to fight yourself. By starting to trust your body and its feelings, you naturally breathe deeper and you begin to loosen the vice of your inner police state – that voice that keeps you on unnecessary high-alert. Instead, you can feel centered and your nervous system will come to rest. And in this relaxed alertness, you’ll be able to pay yourself the attention you really need. You’ll start to notice if you are holding your breath and you’ll invite yourself to let it go. You’ll notice if you restrict your chest, and you’ll be able to let yourself soften. You could even notice that your mind is racing and rejoice in the fact that you noticed that at all. Most don’t. This in itself is a victory against your inner-saboteur who wants to scare you blind. All you need do now is witness the powerful calm of your breath as it goes in and as it leaves your body. In this basic act of witnessing yourself, your communication and body language will spring to life. This is the height of Emotional Intelligence – listening to yourself as you would listen empathically to others without fixing, forcing, interfering or judging – simply giving yourself the space to grow. It is absolutely our ability to sooth our nervous system rather than deny its fragility that lends us this enormous power.
Human fragility is a fact we would do well to embrace, not deny. When we can admit our tender beating hearts, even just to ourselves, we can soften. We become more real and less contrived. Hey presto – stronger too. Because a soft body, free from extraneous tension, has enormous capacity for strength and flexibility. When we can lengthen our posture, open up our chests and remain calm, in spite of life’s unpredictability, we develop the grit, mettle and resilience necessary to succeed where most others wither. We no longer need to control every living moment for fear of our vulnerability seeping through the cracks; we know we are vulnerable and we know every single other person in the room is vulnerable too. This knowledge is the great leveller. Aware we all feel the same in the deepest crevices of our psyche allows us to let go of the stultifying repression that hardens our bodies against freedom of expression. We relax. What relief! We return to self, to Being, to presence, to strength.
Clearly our body language can serve us magnificently - if we let it. When we trust ourselves because we’re no longer shaming our body language into submission, we can take the important risks necessary to growth. And a glorious thing happens: our self-respect soars. We stop exhausting ourselves with endless approval-seeking and begin to truly know that we merit our position. We become a person of high value, rather than pretending to be one. And we learn to attract better opportunities whilst repelling those not worthy of our esteem.
Life is a gift; an opportunity to seize the things you dream of. So it’s time to take a deep diaphragmatic breath, know you matter, honour your desires and speak up before you have the chance to bully yourself into silence. Take a seat at the table; don’t wait for it to be offered – you may be waiting a long time. Respectfully assert your voice and watch your body language follow suit. Fine-tune your listening skills so you learn to read the body language of others. Then use the fullness of your voice to say something you actually mean. Exhibit your substance and gravitas, not your self-apology or arrogance. And treat yourself as you would a thoroughbred so you can move with your head held high; dignity bristling through your entire body. The alternative is the route of the coward, playing small with a gazillion well-worn excuses to validate your victimhood. Success is only for the brave who have the courage to uphold their inner resolve regardless of the judgement of others or the danger inherent in life. This is the person who wins.
Having spent countless consulting hours observing human behaviour, it is safe to say that our body language is delightfully complex, rich and highly worth developing. By connecting to your much forgotten body, you’ll be more in touch with a part of yourself that most people deny. And therein lies your power. It is now more imperative than ever in this increasingly chaotic world of business that you dare to follow your physical and emotional aliveness. If you can shake off the surface layer of “niceness” that suffocates, you’ll reach an edgier, emboldened and more genuine you. Your cells will vibrate with an incredible luminosity no matter what is happening around you, and there can be no greater body language than that.