Our body language is crucial to successful communication and yet it is one of the most overlooked components of business strategy. We 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 might be saying about us. The fact is, no matter how impressive our words are, if our body language is unconsciously sending out a negative message, we will more than likely lose the client, the deal and the opportunity.
Having spent countless consulting hours observing human behaviour, it is safe to say that our body language is magnificently complex, rich and highly worth developing. By connecting to your much forgotten body, you’ll be in touch with an enormous well of power that most people deny. So start paying attention. Learn to trust in your body’s natural intelligence rather than forcing it into a contrived expression that reeks of weakness. This is first and foremost about developing self-respect so you become a rare person of high value - rather than merely pretending to be one.
What is Body Language?
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. A fearful mind-set prone to apologetic or aggressive thinking often straitjackets your physiology. You literally shrink when you think badly of yourself. Emotions too, though felt within the body, always show up physically in how you 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.
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 may not feel up to the job and will refuse to acknowledge their potential in case they, heaven forbid, make a “mistake”. Their body language leaks fear and hardly breeds our faith in their capability to lead or inspire.
Now imagine a person who moves in a more open manner, 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 micro-expressions that signify insecurity. This person confidently takes up their space. In fact, their entire demeanour demonstrates the courage and strength necessary for leadership and we tend to feel safer in their competent presence.
Obviously, body language is much more nuanced than these two extremes and people can come across in a whole myriad of ways. And thankfully there is always scope for development and many practical ways to grow into a more convincing being. 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.
The Power of Your Voice.
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 can literally make or break your 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. And by allowing your voice to dance in the danger of the unpredictable moment, you’ll snap the even the most tired audiences out of their corporate slumber. You’ll sound real in a world saturated with the contrived.
The difference between voice quality is very apparent in theatre. Two different actors will play Hamlet, but the one who convinces will be the one whose voice is most resonant, powerful, 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 and flat. Aggressive voices that lack any sensitive undertone tend to push us away whilst softer voices that lack harder edges tend to imply weakness. Voices that fear disapproval attract the very thing they fear and a flimsy voice with no emotion at all will simply not be heard. It is only 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.
The Power of Intuitive Listening.
But excellent speaking skills only represent one half of leadership expression. You must also attend to your listening skills. If we cannot listen to our peers, we will miss the hugely valuable information they are often silently transmitting. And it is precisely this information that informs our best response and shows us exactly how to motivate, lead and inspire.
A good listener is however incredibly rare. Most of us are too preoccupied to truly see another. We are driven by ingrained assumptions, unthinking bias and mindless thoughts that deny us the ability to clearly observe the person before us. But when we do, a remarkable thing happens; we start to notice not only what a person is saying, but can more accurately decode what they don't say. Once you are trained 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 also know if someone is positive or whether they harbour malevolent intentions towards you simply by witnessing what their body is saying. With these highly specific observations, you are much more likely to attune to another person, and either create the secure bonds crucial to a successful working life – or power apart.
The Necessity for Emotional Intelligence.
This level of listening develops our emotional intelligence; the intuition to ascertain the reality of a situation. When emotional intelligence is lacking, we can misinterpret the intentions of our peers, invent unfounded bias and fail to decipher what really makes them tick. Whole teams descend into unspoken resentments and strife when team leaders refuse to pay attention and facilitate the difficult yet meaningful conversations that foster connection. We can of course attempt to gather this information about our teams through unproven “personality tests” that proliferate most organisations still today. But their results will be, as ever, inconsistent, inaccurate and totally meaningless. And no amount of unscientific personality testing will ever beat the superior powers that emotional intelligence gives you.
Please note: while body language offers more accurate insights into the emotional state of someone else, it cannot tell you why the person is exhibiting that emotion. Yet many of us make unsubstantiated snap judgements - 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 internal responses such as self-doubt and insecurity. If enough stress is produced, you trigger your pre-limbic neural defence mechanism that sets you up for fight, flight or freeze. Your brain literally prepares you for attack and you forget you’re just in a simple meeting. Unless you can calm yourself down fast, your performance spirals.
We have to nip this neurological chain reaction in the bud. Firstly, we must remember that we cannot ever accurately know what another person is thinking - so why worry? And secondly, when we realise the other person, like most humans, is probably more preoccupied with their own performance to even notice ours too closely, the pressure subsides. We calm the nervous system and come back to reality. However, let us assume the worst; that the other person is unfairly judging us 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 our self-worth. The ignorance and stupidity of others is no good reason for you to start whacking yourself with an internal stick.
Why Assertive Body Language Wins
Emotional intelligence naturally leads to assertive expression; the skill to direct all our emotions in a constructive manner. However, one emotion that is hard for many people to manage is anger. Most of us do not even know how to express it healthily in our personal lives, let alone at work. Yet, it is the unusual person who can positively direct their anger, set boundaries and stand firmly behind their convictions, who is strong. They command respect because they respect themselves and their body language communicates solidity. It won’t even matter how they are standing, moving or sitting; their inner resolve emanates a consolidated physical presence that cannot be exploited. If you cannot access your anger, you won’t be able to assert your boundaries. 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, evolves into bitterness and defeat. We cannot control others - that’s a fools game. The only sensible solution in this complex world of ours is to focus on changing ourselves and learning to become mentally strong. Intention is power and with that your body language falls graciously into place.
Treat Yourself like Someone You Are Proud Of.
Sadly, we often treat ourselves with much disrespect. We cruelly put ourselves down and shame ourselves into submission. We tell ourselves that we are no good, not worthy of success, and worse, we discredit our achievements. After all, who do we think we are? Get back in your little box you pathetic worm. What results? People clamouring to look strong on the outside when the reality is they feel the exact opposite. No wonder many of us report feeling like frauds at work, 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 an illness we have caught. Make no mistake; it is simply our natural human response to a part of our own psyche that is hell-bent on bullying us into a sense of inadequacy. The enemy is, and has always been, within.
When we try to hide our authenticity, we actually become contrived, compliant and weak. Not only that, 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 world no matter how hard we try to conceal it. This self-repression can start the 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 can escape. Some of us look as if our jaws have been super-glued together. By the time we open our mouths to form words, we've already sunk the ship.
What to do? Start by treating yourself as though you are someone you are incredibly proud of. Stand tall, relax your chest and let yourself breathe deeply without trying to change your natural presence. If you notice any constrictions in your body, invite yourself to let them go. Psychologically, you’ll be turning to face your fears rather than habitually running. You’ll own the moment rather than be governed by it. And you’ll start to trust your body and feelings rather than constantly trying to manipulate them to appease the bully within. Your nervous system will thank you for it. And in this relaxed alertness, your body language will spring back to creative life.
Our body language can emanate huge psychological power - if we let it. This is not about being better than anyone else. This work is about becoming your most integrated, congruent and convincing self. So it’s time to take a deep diaphragmatic breath, honour your needs and say something you actually mean. Most don’t have the guts. Take a seat at the table; don’t wait for it to be offered – you may be waiting a long time. And worse, complaining about it. By becoming less compliant, you’ll reach an edgier, emboldened and more genuine you. Your body will vibrate with an incredible luminosity no matter what is happening around you, and there can be no greater body language than that. In a world saturated with the cold, hard and dim of spirit, you’ll shine.