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Watch Your Body Language

| July 10, 2018

by Jim Bruce

… Others Most Certainly Are


Some 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”  
What Emerson was saying is that the way you show up, your presence, can so over power what you say that your words have little or no impact or perhaps even a negative impact. That’s not a very pretty picture.
Nick Morgan,1 writing in a Forbes essay reviewing Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest Challenges,2 says that “Presence is showing up. It’s not having your body language undercut what you’re trying to express. It’s having the power to say what you need to say.” Cuddy also notes that presence helps us command respect, speak with poise and clarity, become genuinely likeable to others, and develop an inner sense of confidence that helps us feel good about ourselves and make progress in our lives.
Much has been written about both body language blunders and things that would be constructive for us to do. Here are five from a much longer list that can be found in the essays listed below for further reading:

  1. Bad posture. It is very easy find yourself slipping into less-than-perfect posture, perhaps slouching, as your day wears on. However, slouching conveys, to those who sit and stand tall, that you’re a slob, not positive, not energetic, not caring. Your posture can also convey that you are protective, guarded or inattentive. If you find yourself slouching at your desk, slide your buttocks towards the back of the chair with your back against the chair’s rear, taking care to not sit too stiffly. When standing, keep your posture erect, your shoulders back and your head high. You’ll look more assured and confident.
  2. Smile.  You want to smile when you first meet a person and shake their hand, when you talk about subjects that are important to you, and when you say goodbye. Smiling not only stimulates your own sense of well-being, it also tells those around you that you are approachable and trustworthy, and influences how they respond to you. Research at Duke University has demonstrated that we like and remember those who smile at us. However, if you smile too much, you’ll be seen as nervous or trying to build a relationship too quickly. It will also make you look less smart and less friendly. Further, never fake a smile as it will label you as being insincere or a fraud.
  3. Make eye contact. You may be an introvert, you may be shy, or your cultural background may have taught you that extended eye contact is not appropriate. Not so, particularly in a work context. Leaders will expect you to maintain eye contact about half of the time. It shows that you are listening and paying attention. (If you are asking how you make eye contact without staring, here’s a simple technique you can use: Whenever you greet a colleague, look into his or her eyes long enough to note color of the eyes.) When you avoid eye contact, you are communicating that you lack confidence in yourself, that you are uncomfortable, that you lack interest, are afraid, or want to escape. So, step it up and make eye contact with the individual you are communicating with.
  4. Shaking hands. Touch is our most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue. Making contact with another’s arm, hand, or shoulder for as little as 1/40th of a second creates a human bond. Shaking someone’s hand is often one of the very first impressions we have of another person. This tactile contact can make a lasting positive impression. However, if your handshake is weak or limp, you are sending the message that you too are weak. Be firm with your handshake, but not a “bone crusher” as that can actually cause pain. Carol Goman notes that “While a great handshake is important for all professionals, it is especially key for women – whose confidence is evaluated by the quality of their handshake even more than it is with their male counterparts.”
  5. Talk with your hands. Brain imaging has shown that a region of the brain called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re speaking, but also when we move our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as you talk can actually power up your thinking. A Colgate University study found that using gestures leads people to listen to you more carefully (if the gestures are limited to the space from the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist). Whenever an individual gestures as he or she speaks or makes a presentation, his or her verbal content will typically improve, their speech will be less hesitant, and their use of non-word fillers such as “ums” and “uhs” will decrease.  (You can find a list of 20 powerful hand gestures here.)

As you go about your week, pay some additional attention to your body language. Is it reinforcing what you are actually saying and feeling or is it expressing something else that is perhaps negatively affecting the impression you are trying to make and what you actually mean? And, if you find something that needs to be addressed, there’s no better time to begin to work on it than now.
And, if you have mastered these five elements of your body language, take a look at the essays listed under Further Readings (below) and identify something new that would strengthen your leadership. Begin to do the work to add it to your set of behaviors.
Do make it a great week. Summer has arrived here in the Northeast and I’m ready to enjoy it.
.  .  .  .  jim
 Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Nick Morgan, Presence, Amy Cuddy And Traumatic Brain Injury,, June 2016.
  2. Amy CuddyPresence:  Bringing Your Boldest Self To Your Biggest ChallengesLittle, Brown and Company, 2015.

For Further Reading:

  1. Jim Bruce, Let’s Talk, Tuesday Reading, January 2016.
  2. Peter Economy, 11 Powerful Ways to Fix Bad Body, October 2014.
  3. Sophia Gottfried, The Body Language Mistakes You Don’t Realize You’re Making at Work,, June 2018.
  4. Carol Kinsey Goman, 12 Body Language Tips for Career Success,, August 2013.
  5. Vanessa Van Edwards, 7 Body Language Tips Everybody Should Know,, September 2016.
  6. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Executive Presence:  The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, HarperCollins Books, 2014.