Humans are the only animals to communicate using words. The rest of the animal kingdom manages very well with non-verbal signals.
Your body language releases lots of subtle and unconscious signals about you whether you are speaking or just entering a room.
And your body language messages are seen by others as more honest and reliable than your words. When your words don’t match your gestures, it’s your gestures that will be seen as the truth. We tend to believe the delivery, rather than the words. So it’s really important that your words and your body language match, that they are congruent, otherwise you will be giving mixed messages and risk not being believed.
Recall a time when you have needed to select somebody to provide a service. They say all the right things and, on the face of it, seem very friendly and honest. Yet, for some reason that you can’t quite put your finger on, you don’t like them or don’t fully trust them. It could be because they don’t naturally build rapport and, if there is no rapport, it will be harder to work with them or even like them.
But it could also be because you have unconsciously read a signal, read their body language, and found an incongruence: the words they say and their body language mismatch, even if very subtly, and you’ve read it. Sometimes we’ll think of it as a ‘gut reaction’ or a ‘hunch’—but what we’ve done is unconsciously picked up something about them they didn’t mean to communicate.
So, in order to become better communicators and influencers we need to become aware of our own body language signals and then work to improve them, and we can also study others’ body language, to ‘listen’ to them with all our senses to improve communication and our ability to get into rapport with them.
The good news is that we are all experts on body language. You read it all the time and have done so since you were fifteen minutes old. And you can teach yourself to be better at it.
Here are some simple ways to help ourselves be congruent—ways to ensure that our words and body language match and we don’t give out unintended messages.
First of all, be clear in your own mind what you want to communicate and what you want the outcomes to be. If you aren’t clear in your own mind, your body language is likely to give that away even if your words don’t. So, focus on your goals or outcomes—this will motivate you and help make your words feel real, which should naturally make your gestures feel and look genuine.
On the same theme it is also important is to sell your message to yourself first. If you believe what you are saying then your body will synchronise. The behaviour cycle model shows that what we believe creates and affects our behaviour and therefore our body language. If a part of you doesn’t quite believe it, tell yourself a number of times that you do believe it. Even just telling yourself will help bring your body language into synchrony.
Avoid exaggerations when you’re trying to be convincing. The more you stress the point, the more likely it is that your gestures will let you down. It is better to be brief and to the point.
When pressure builds up, your muscles tense, making natural looking body language difficult. Breathe out slowly to relax your body and drop your shoulders. If you get a chance without being seen, give your hands and feet a little shake to relax the muscles.
Avoid using a poker face technique. It might be tempting to keep very still and try to give nothing away, especially when you first become more aware of your body language, but you won’t fool people into thinking you’re more sincere—they are more likely to wonder what you are hiding. Small genuine movements are better than sitting or standing like a statue.
Keep hand gestures between your shoulders and waist. The higher I make my hand gestures the less congruent I look—instead I look like I’m trying too hard.
Find out what your pet fiddles are—these are small self-comforting touches we do when we feel anxious or unsure. Do you fiddle with your jewellery or your hair or tie? Or straighten your glasses more times than is necessary? If you’re not sure, put your attention on it for a day or so, or perhaps ask a friend, or get someone to watch you for a while and report back. Then retrain yourself not to use them. If you do still feel the need for some sort of self comforter find a small less noticeable action—maybe something like gently rubbing your thumb or the inside of your palm.
Of course the best way to be congruent is to, whenever possible, be honest and tell the truth, trust others with what you are thinking and feeling, rather than hold back from them. Really communicate what’s going on for you. If you are honest, your body language and your words will match. And if you are also sensitive and non-judgemental then that’s the best communication you can give.
In the same way as words can have several meanings, any one gesture can be interpreted in several different ways. Crossing your arms could mean you feel anxious or angry—or simply that the room is too cold. Arm-folding can be done to signal displeasure or to cut off, but it’s also something we do just because it feels comfortable.
Nose-touching could show you’re covering your mouth to conceal a lie but it could just as easily mean you’ve got an itchy nose.
To understand words, we have to place them in a sentence, and it’s just the same with body language gestures, except the sentence is formed by all your other movements and signals. So the word of caution here is not to take any one gesture and presume you know what it means. In order to try to read someone’s body language you have to look for groups of clues or clusters.
If a person crosses their arms we may not make too much of it, but if they cross their arms, step or lean back, and stiffen up, they probably don’t like or disagree with what we are saying.
In negotiation you could look for whether a person generally has open or closed body language.
Open body language will usually show they are relaxed and comfortable and it is welcoming and attentive. Their body is open and, in caveman terms, it is vulnerable to others—and they are showing they are comfortable about that. Their hands will probably be in view, possibly with exposed palms, their legs and posture are free and easy and the eye contact will be good. And of course all of this would apply to you when you have open body language.
Closed body language will usually show they have some form of discomfort such as anxiety, nervousness, fear, hostility. The body language will be a number of gestures and posture that brings the body in on itself. They make the body appear smaller, bringing the limbs close in and tense and often creating a barrier between you such as folding the arms and not much eye contact.
One essential tactic is to calibrate another’s body language. Early in the conversation, pay attention when they are answering a question that you know to be truthful—something obvious. Try to do this at least three times to get a good baseline. When you see that baseline change during the conversation, you know something’s not right.
The key point to you about other people’s body language is to become aware of it. Consciously watch it. Listen to it, so to speak. It can tell us a lot and sometimes we are so caught up in what we are thinking or trying to say that we forget to ‘listen’ to other people’s body language—sometimes we even forget to listen to what they are saying. On the other hand, if we get into the habit of listening in this way we will consciously and unconsciously improve our communication with others.
You have probably noticed that, when you speak to someone face to face, you are often not looking at them. Equally, when they are speaking, they too look away. Be aware of what is going for you when you do this. It is likely you’ll find that, at the moment you look away, you are recalling an event—possibly visualising it, reliving an emotion or searching for the right words.
Use these moments to enhance rapport and thereby improve your listening. After all, when we listen on the telephone we don’t remain silent. To avoid the other person thinking we have gone away while they’re talking, we indicate that we’re listening by making sounds which we probably wouldn’t make if they were in the room. This technique, if applied lightly, can be just as effective in face to face dialogue.
Experienced communicators lean slightly towards the speaker, but not in any fixed way. The speaker interprets this as the other person attending to them, listening to them, and even keen to hear more. Making eye contact is also important, although a fixed glare will be off‑putting because it is unnatural, false.
Finally, relax. This is the most basic form of matching. If you’re not relaxed, it will stop the other person relaxing. Conversely, relax yourself and you can lead the other person into a more relaxed state. And, of course, a relaxed state is where the best communication occurs.
© 2011 Jeremy Marchant Limited . by Jeremy Marchant . uploaded 3 may 2015, corrected 22 december 2015