Let me hear your body talk: what your words don’t say

Tracey Pic 1

Recognize any of these scenarios? You’re having coffee with a friend and while you’re chatting, she’s texting on her smartphone. Someone snickers when you ask a question in a staff meeting. You look to a colleague for an opinion, and she casts her eyes down while constantly twisting her hair around her finger.

No one had to say a word but the message was received – loud and clear. That’s the power of non-verbal communication. Fact is that up to 90 per cent of your message is communicated through your actions. Which leaves you with a scanty 10 per cent to convey meaning through the words coming out of your mouth. Regardless of our intentions, people judge us more by our actions.

A few years ago, I’d snagged some time with my busy boss to discuss a matter of importance to me. We sat across from one another at a table in his office for this conversation. Throughout the meeting, he continually looked over my shoulder to observe – and sometimes comment on – the people walking past his office. Twice the phone rang, and he leaned back from his chair to reach it on his desk, giving me the “it will only be a minute” hand signal. Listening to his end of the conversation, what was being discussed didn’t sound urgent. There was nothing to do but sit quietly and wait for him to finish. And then try to pick up where we left off in the discussion before the interruption. “Sorry, Tracey – you were saying…?”

Can’t lie: I was troubled  – and yes, a bit hurt. Those distractions had hijacked our too infrequent one-on-one meeting and he seemed oblivious to the effect they were having on our attempts at a conversation that I’d indicated was important to me. I left his office feeling unheard and disrespected.

By focusing on this one incident, I’ve painted him as an insensitive, awful boss and he wasn’t really. He was generally open to feedback, so I popped by his office later that day, emotions now in check, and asked to speak with him. I referenced our earlier meeting, and what his non-verbal behaviours had communicated to me: namely, that he appeared to be more interested in everything else but a conversation with me. He thanked me for my candour and apologized for his unintended messages.

Non-verbal communication – sometimes called body language – consists of all the messages other than words we use to communicate. These cues include facial expressions, body movement and gestures, eye contact, posture, vocal pitch, pauses and involuntary responses such as cringing or blushing. Even a closed office door sends a message. People “hear” body language and tone of voice much more loudly than your actual words.

What are the implications of non-verbal communication in a workplace? It’s simply about being mindful of the signals we’re sending out – intentionally and unintentionally. Being aware of what you’re communicating non-verbally can stop molehills from becoming mountains and can help you navigate the most challenging conversations.

A participant in a recent communication workshop I facilitated shared an a-ha she’d recently had regarding her non-verbal signals. She said she was surprised to find out that her staff always assessed her facial expression before approaching her with an issue or question. “Finally one of them told me that I had a formidable scrunchy face,” she said. “He said I furrow my brow and frown and look pretty scary. Until he pointed it out, I had no idea that when I’m lost in thought I can look so unapproachable.”

By developing your awareness of the signs and signals of body language, you can more easily understand other people and more effectively communicate with them. A few thoughts to keep in mind as you communicate:

  •     Focus on the person you are trying to connect with. When you’re distracted, he or she will notice that you are not completely engaged in the conversation.
  •     To signal interest, lean slightly in towards the person you’re communicating with.
  •     Maintain frequent eye contact – without staring or glaring.
  •     Offer encouraging non-verbal cues while someone is speaking: e.g. a nod of approval or a smile.
  •     Use open body language such as uncrossing your arms, standing with an open stance or sitting on the edge of your seat.
  •     Concentrate on your tone of voice and pitch when speaking. Start noticing how it affects the way people respond to you.
  •     Be aware of people’s need for “personal space”. Determining how much space is appropriate between you and the person(s) you’re talking to depends on a number of factors, including the situation, cultural norms and level of familiarity.

If you’re curious about whether you’re “walking the talk”, why not ask your colleagues or friends to give you feedback on the non-verbal cues you’re sending out? Ask them to let you know when you may be communicating mixed messages.

This blog post was originally published on Trace of Whimsy.

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