Pay attention—your body language is speaking

While you are talking, do you know what your body is saying? Use these four elements of body language to integrate both what you say and how you say it.

Body language for everyone
Do you know what your body language is saying?

Communication Challenges

As a leader, body language affects your communication, your relationships and your ability to achieve results. It can even influence your energy levels, and how you respond to stress and conflict. Do any of the following examples sound familiar to you?

Take Charge Body Language

Linda had a take charge body language, projecting well-earned competence and a natural enthusiastic dynamism. This served her well when she was working for a government regulator which set standards of practice for others to follow. But when she moved to an organization that coordinated services through multiple partners, this same behaviour was viewed as alienating and domineering. She learned to “Velcro her mouth”, sit back in her chair and let others speak first in order to foster consensus and buy-in.

Contained Body Language

James had a contained body language, projecting thoughtfulness, diligence, astute reasoning, and amazing calm under pressure. But when he led the merger of two divisions during a major acquisition, when many people were worried about their future, this same containment could appear as emotional aloofness. He learned to express his own personal feelings before getting down to business and to deal with people issues before product challenges.

Caring Body Language

Brenda had a caring body language. She had based her success as an Executive Director on her ability to forge values-based partnerships with other community organizations, raising the profile and credibility for her entire field. But when new players emerged to grab some of the spotlight—and funding—her consensus leadership style was no longer serving the organization. She learned to take a strong but neutral posture, calm herself through breathing and use bold statements  to both protect her agency and carve out a new future in a changing landscape.

Expansive Body Language

Daniel had an expansive body language. He was a hands-on, people-oriented leader, which served him well heading up the operations function of a growing utility; a unionized environment that placed a premium on safety for high-risk work. But as the organization grew, he was spread too thin and couldn’t reach everyone. He learned to set clear expectations, not cover for others and switch with agility between receptive and assertive body language stances.

In all these cases, these [click_to_tweet tweet=”Leaders adapt the content of their message to their audience, but their quickest and often most sustainable wins came from adapting body language.” quote=”senior leaders adapted the content of their message to their audience, but their quickest and often most sustainable wins came from adapting their body language.”]

Four Elements of Body Language

Here are four elements that will help you make quick adjustments to bring your body language in line with your intended message.

Posture

Your posture is one of the easiest things to adjust. How you carry yourself—sitting or standing— often reflects unconscious assumptions about being on display, or putting yourself in a position where your views and interests may conflict with others’. Most of us start off with an inbuilt preference for assertive or receptive stances[i]. With time, maturity and more complex senior roles, we must learn to integrate both assertive and receptive stances, depending on the context, the people and our broader goals.

The best way to do this is from a neutral stance, where you sit or stand straight and square. Neutral body language supports the spine in its natural arch and projects that you are ready for anything!

  • Neutral posture is feet flat on the floor, toes pointing forward, knees soft, shoulders back, chest expanded, chin tucked in. Think mountain pose in yoga! Here’s a short video showing you how to adopt a neutral stance.
Neutral body stance in Tadasana
Mountain Pose-a neutral body language

With this neutral stance as your home base, you can move to an assertive stance when you want to advocate for your own views and interests, or those of your team or organization.

  • Assertive postures are generally open and forceful, leaning forward, intense eye contact, or power poses that build confidence as advocated by Amy Cuddy.

You can also move to a receptive stance, where you convey that you are seriously considering the views and objectives of others.

  • Receptive postures are open and relaxed, slightly leaning back, perhaps head tilted to listen, hands lightly resting.

Breath

Your posture will automatically affect how you breathe, and therefore how much oxygen and energy are circulating through your body. Most of us—particularly under pressure— breathe from high up in the chest, tending toward short, shallow breaths.

  • Stop and take a conscious breath to calm or energize yourself, or to bring yourself fully on-line before a crucial conversation
  • Soften the belly, letting the muscles of the lower diaphragm expand so that your breathing naturally drops further in the body
  • Adopt a neutral posture to permit easy and natural breathing and circulation

Face, Eyes and Hands

Our tendency to eye contact, facial expressiveness and use of hand gestures is often culturally shaped. As an anglophone I didn’t learn to use gestures as a child, but after many travels around the Mediterranean, I now find myself waving my hands around! Depending on your personal baseline and the cultural context, practice;

  • Making eye contact, for a short or long period of time. Use your eyes to express emotions; eyes wide (surprise, pleasure) or slightly narrow (doubt)
  • Smiling. Drop your jaw slightly (so your teeth aren’t touching) to soften your face. Cock your head to one side to express interest
  • Consider adding or minimizing your use of gesture to add emotion, emphasis and colour to your body language. Use a firm, but not bone-crushing handshake.

Use of Space

Where you sit at a table or stand in a room is an overlooked aspect of body language. Try;

  • At a meeting table, vary your usual spot. Sit where you can make eye contact with key people. If you’re having a meeting between two teams, decide whether you want the team members to sit on opposite sides of the table, or intermingle.
  • When standing, go to the back of the room to take a receptive stance, or move toward the centre of the room to take an assertive stance.

Mindfulness and Conscious Body Language

So how are you supposed to pay attention to your body language as well as the content of your message? Mindfulness helps.

With mindfulness, you learning to pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the body, mind and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.[ii] You can become curious about your default body language. What or who triggers you to adopt an assertive or receptive stance? How can you, in the moment, adapt your body language? (My book Mind Your Life helps you develop a customized mindfulness practice to suit your style and schedule.)

When you pay attention to what your body is speaking, as well as your mouth, you do not give off mixed messages. With your body and words aligned, you grow into your full integrity, able to offer all your wisdom and respond with agility to complex challenges. Leadership is a full contact sport!

[i]See Bill Joiner & Stephen Josephs, Leadership Agility (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2007)

[ii]See Meg Salter, Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Builds Resilience and Reveals Your Extraordinary (Toronto, MegaSpace Press, 2017)

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