Sticking together (or krazy glue in the wrong hands!)

For as long as I can remember, Angela Merkel (Germany’s chancellor), could generally be seen shaking her fists in the air to argue a point. She must have recently received some guidance from a body language coach though because, as can be seen from this shot, she has clearly changed her approach!

You can see that she makes a lot of use of ‘the steeple’, a gesture generally thought of as a sign of being in charge intellectually. (Although if used excessively it could also suggest some kind of an unfortunate accident involving a tube of Krazy Glue!)

What’s your body saying?

My work with executives often entails building their presentation skills, and we consistently address both the verbal and the non-verbal aspects of communication. Studies have shown, in fact, that if a person gives a different physical cue from the verbal message then the onlooker tends to believe the body language content over the oral content (try this: talk about something sad, but smile and move in an active, dynamic fashion when you do so).

There are, however, a lot of misconceptions out there as to what body language signals mean – and often they are used ineffectively, or worse, to the detriment of the individual’s message. People are all different and use body language differently: from children to grown-ups, from men to women, and from people from different socio economic or psychographic origins. In addition, for executives who work in a global playing field, a gesture that may be respected in one culture may be offensive in another. So, beware of making generalizations!

The Basics

Mastering a few basic tactics and using your body language more effectively can be very helpful if you want to be a better communicator. Not only will you be able to connect with other people better, but studies have shown that tactics that signal confidence – after some practice – tend to benefit the individual and actually build their confidence – a self-fulfilling prophecy if you like.

The key is to remain authentic – both with the message content and with you as a persona. For example, if you are generally someone who is more contained, we don’t recommend that you suddenly use wide and generous gestures if that doesn’t ring true with who you are. As a female executive, you can assert yourself more by learning to feel more comfortable in taking up physical space (your male counterparts generally use up more space to signal dominance: sitting on a table or leaning back in their chair, hands clasped behind their head, for example). However, taking it too far and trying to emulate your male colleague may lead to a loss of credibility and, in the extreme, cause resistance in your environment (plus you might fall off your chair!).

Here are some essential concepts to help you to take control of what your body is saying:

1/Watch movies and pay attention to the body language that actors use to communicate different emotions. If you are looking for a good starter, try “12 Angry Men.” Next, watch politicians give speeches. What do you notice? What might work for you in your professional life?

2/Mirror your counterpart’s body language – used subtly, you can signal that you are aligned and in sync with their point of view. So, if your colleague leans forward or puts their hand on the table, wait a few seconds and follow their move.

3/Un-cross your arms and legs. This communicates openness and a healthy sense of self.

4/Keep your arms lower than your shoulders – touching your ear or a necklace repeatedly tends to signal insecurity or, in the case of raised hands, can be interpreted as threatening.

5/Use a voice that stems from your belly as opposed to the top of your throat – it helps you to sound ‘deeper’ and calmer. When we are angry or upset we tend to breathe in a shallower manner and the voice comes out of our throats. The higher pitch is often associated with hysterics.

6/Point your shoes towards the person you are talking to (don’t show your soles as this doesn’t go down well in many cultures). This shows that your counterpart has your undivided attention.

7/Avoid using hectic movements of arms and legs as this can signal a lack of composure and control.

8/Having your hips broad, your feet firmly on the ground and your knees slightly bent communicates confidence and firmness.

9/Moving your lips forward can be interpreted as ‘doubt’ by your peers.

10/Having your hands slightly open and the palms pointing upwards is often seen as a sign of openness to other’s ideas and suggestions.

But maybe the main message is that, whatever you do; aim to have a broader body language repertoire than Germany’s chancellor!