Business Body Language: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Posted by Lori Free
January 13, 2016

lori-free--1-1.pngWelcome back to the OC Blog! We're kicking off the year with a great post from our Director of Business Development, Lori Free. Start the year strong with Lori's breakdown of business body language:

I am a firm believer that the minute you're in the company of another human being, you're a “beacon” of messages. You're constantly sending out signals before you've uttered one word. Our message is conveyed through our words, body language, and vocal choices. According to a study in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian, our body language conveys 55% of our message. Although there has been much debate about the equation of the study, most communication experts agree nonverbal messages speak louder than words.

So, what are you saying before you utter a word? Let’s take a look at five areas of dos, don'ts, and don't evens that we can address to strengthen our business body language and nonverbal communication skills.

Posture: Right now, you're leaning over your computer reading this article. STOP! Take an inventory of your posture. Are your shoulders turned in? Are you slouching? Do you have one hand holding up your head? You can justify this position by saying to yourself, “I’m in my office by myself, what does it matter?” Now, ask yourself, were you positioned in the same fashion in your last management meeting? We're habitual creatures, and it takes time to break a habit. So, let’s start now.

Whether you're standing or sitting, you want to pull your shoulders back. You don't have to get into a military stance, but you do want to stand up and sit up straight with your abdomen pulled in and chin parallel to the ground. Good posture exudes confidence. Confidence, not to be confused with arrogance, is a signal we send to the people around us. Research from Harvard and Columbia Business Schools show standing and sitting tall raises testosterone (the hormone linked to power and self-confidence) and lowers the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Hand Gestures: Growing up in Rhode Island, I couldn't speak without my hands flailing all over the place.  Most of my staff members left my office exhausted from bobbing and weaving in an attempt not to get hit as I spoke. I truly didn't believe I would be able to speak if you tied my hands!

I have learned hand gestures should be an accent to your message not a distraction. But, what should you do with them? When you're in a standing position your hands should be right where they were intended; down by your side. This natural position is very awkward for most of us, but with practice you can get used to it. From there, you can gesture freely, if not frenetically.

At the conference table, your hands should be in front of you. Hands under the table can Business-body-language.pngindicate you have something to hide. Arms folded across the chest indicate to your audience you're defensiveness or in disagreement. Hands in pocket, fidgeting fingers, and twirling of hair can indicate lack of interest, nervousness, and lack of self-esteem.

Handshake: The handshake dates back to medieval times. It's a common business greeting. And, yet there are many people who do not know the proper way to engage in a handshake.  With your arm extended, firmly grasp the other hand web-to-web, shake 2-3 times and release. Make eye contact and smile. It's not a test of strength. The key is: firm, not ferocious. Men have a tendency to be more familiar and comfortable with the hand shake than women. Ladies, no finger shakes or weak grips. In today’s business environment the handshake is not gender-driven. Ladies and gentlemen, shake hands.

Eye Contact : As a child, I can remember my father saying, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” I was not allowed to move my eyes off his face in the "stare down" mode.

Eye contact is not meant to be a stare down. It does, however, let your audience know you're listening to them, and it's a vital part of your interpersonal communication skills. The eyes should remain between the top of the head and the chin of the person you are engaged with. The eyes can shift and the head can tilt but keep contact. And remember, you cannot engage in eye contact when you are looking at your phone.

Business-body-language-2.jpgFacial Expressions: Scenario: Team members are gathered around the conference table for the weekly meeting. During your report about how the new software is going to help save time and money, your colleague across the table scowls and rolls her eyes. Without uttering a word, she said, “I don’t see that happening,” or “That’s what they said about the last software.” The interesting thing about our facial expressions is that most of us think no one else sees them. I assure you they do!

We have a term in communications called the "neutral face". It isn't stoic like a "poker" face. The face is relaxed. There is no tension between the eyebrows. Think of it as a pleasant place to stop. You want to be sure you are sending your signals, nonverbal cues, when you want them to be recognized. Of course, your face shouldn't be frozen all of the time! For example, If you have a question, it's fine to tilt the head and pull in your eyebrows. As a facilitator, I look for nonverbal cues from my audience all the time. Believe me, they have a lot to say when they think no one is watching!

A good exercise to help you recognize your nonverbal cues is to hang a mirror in your office, directly in front of you if possible. Every now and then, look up and take an inventory. Watch your facial expressions while you are engaged in telephone conversations. If you want to send a message of professionalism, confidence, and self-assurance, make sure your nonverbal signals match your words and tone. Remember, like Sting said, every breath you take, every move you make, someone's watching you!

How's your business body language? Do you need to work on any of these points? Let us know in the comments below!

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