Develop your body language skills

Communication is so fundamental to most of the things we do in our work as well as in our private lives. One of the most potent forms of communication is body language, the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways in which our body gives off signals or ‘messages’. Sometimes body language reinforces what we are saying – for example, when we say yes and nod at the same time. At other times, body language undermines what we are saying – for example, when, in response to being asked how we are, we say: ‘I’m fine’, but the look on our face says we are anything but fine.

We learn the basics of body language as young children, so it becomes ingrained in our behaviour and our interactions with other people. It becomes normal and natural. However, we can go beyond this if we choose; we can take those basic, everyday skills to a new level. We can develop advanced-level non-verbal communication skills if we put in the effort.

This can involve both ‘reading’ body language and ‘writing’ it – that is, using body language effectively to get our point across. When it comes to advanced-level skills in reading body language, this involves picking up subtle cues that most people will miss. It means being very sensitive to other people’s gestures and movements. In terms of using body language to get our message across better, it is a matter of knowing precisely what is effective in reinforcing our point. For example, if we want to come across as confident, then we need to be clear about (i) what forms of body language communicate a message of confidence; and (ii) which ones undermine any such message. We can then try and make sure that we do much of the former and little or none of the latter.

By being more tuned in to what other people’s body language is telling us (for example, about their emotional state) and being more effective in what messages we are trying to put across we can be far more skilful and successful in our interactions with others – and that can bring us significant benefits in our personal lives as well as in our work roles.

What can get in the way of developing such a level of effectiveness is the very fact that we are so used to body language; it is part and parcel of our daily lives and has been for as long as we can remember. This means that we can (and generally do) become blasé about it. So, what is needed, then, is a greater level of self-awareness. To become more effective in our use of body language we need to raise our level of self-awareness, to be more tuned in to the signals other people are giving off and more alert when it comes to the signals we are giving off.

People vary considerably in their ability to use body language. You may have met people who are so skilled that you immediately feel comfortable with them; their ability to ‘tune in’ to you and put you at your ease is at quite an advanced level. You may have also met people who are pretty clueless when it comes to body language – they fail to ‘connect’ with people and totally miss important information that is there for them to use if only they would tune in to it.

A simple example is smiling. A smile generally means ‘I am pleased to be with you’ and can therefore be a very positive message. By the same token, not smiling can give a very negative message. I once came across a student who had spent 200 days on a work placement and her supervisor had not smiled once during that time, giving the student a very strong message that she was not welcome. Thankfully, the student had not allowed this to get in the way of her learning, but it could easily have been very different and highly problematic.

All forms of communication, including body language, are complex, so it is not just a matter of saying ‘smile more often’. It is more about building up your skills over time, knowing when it is helpful to smile and when it is not. Just relying on the habits that you developed in early childhood gives us far less control (and thus far less effectiveness) when it comes to communication.


Be careful about who you can trust

It is often said that trust needs to be earned, and that implies that we start off not trusting people until they reach the point when they have done enough to convince us that they are trustworthy. But is it really that simple?

How realistic is it to withhold trust until we feel that the risk of having that trust abused is at a low enough level? Of course, it isn’t realistic at all. To a certain extent social interactions would not be possible if we did not begin with at least a degree of basic trust. Imagine totally mistrusting everyone we encounter unless and until they have done enough to convince us that they can be trusted. That would surely make life extremely difficult all round. So, we need to have a certain amount of trust as the basis of our society.

But does that mean that we should just abandon ourselves to trusting all people all of the time? Of course not. That would be a potential recipe for disaster. Unscrupulous people would have a field day in exploiting others if we automatically trusted everyone in all circumstances. There’s also unreliable people, those who don’t intend to exploit us, but who cause us problems because they do not deliver – they either have no compunction in letting us down or they are in some way incapable of making sure they do what they have promised to do. In all of these situations we would be unwise to trust people unconditionally.

So, how do we handle this? Well, to my mind, there are (at least) two sets of issues to consider: degrees of trust and circumstances of trusting. Let’s consider each in turn.

The question of ‘degrees of trust’ is basically a matter of how far you are prepared to be trusting in a particular situation. For example, while certain retail outlets may trust customers to pay for their newspaper by putting the correct amount in the ‘honesty box’ provided, I can’t imagine a car dealership ever allowing people to pay for their new car in that way. To what extent we are prepared to trust will depend on a number of factors. It can be very helpful to be clear about what those factors are before making a decision about trust – especially in those situations where the stakes are high.

Then there are the circumstances of trust to be considered. One obvious aspect of this is somebody’s track record. Have they proven trustworthy in the past? But that’s not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about whether you can trust someone to do something as agreed, how much evidence is there that they have the ability, resources and commitment to deliver? How serious would the consequences be if they did not deliver? These and other situational factors can be important considerations. Assessing the circumstantial factors involved won’t give us a fool-proof way of managing trust-related risk issues, but it will give us a much stronger and safer basis than just relying on gut feelings or putting everything down to chance.

Finally, then, how do we know who to trust and who not to? The short answer is that we don’t. Each episode of trusting someone is a risk, a gamble. There is no guarantee that we will get it right. Sometimes we will not trust someone when there was nothing to be concerned about and perhaps a good opportunity will have passed us by. Then there will be times when we trust people and later regret it, having had our fingers burned. What we need, then, is the same as what we need in relation to any risk issues: a balanced approach. Complete, unconditional trust will leave us vulnerable, whereas minimising trust will narrow our horizons considerably. A balanced approach means avoiding these two extremes and that means weighing up degrees of trust and the circumstances of trusting.

Don’t make decisions when feelings are running high

As human beings, we are, of course, emotional creatures just as much as we are rational, if not more so. This means that any attempt to understand human actions without taking account of the emotional dimension is likely to be, at best, incomplete and potentially totally misleading. Part of the reason emotions are so significant is that our emotional response to a situation can actually change the way our body reacts. For example, if we are anxious, angry or frightened, there can be increased levels of adrenaline in our blood stream (the classic ‘fight or flight’ mechanism) and this can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. In effect, our emotional reaction has triggered a biological reaction that is preparing us for action of some sort. It is an important protective measure to keep us safe from harm. We would struggle without it.

However, this can also backfire on us at times, in the sense that being in an emotionally charged state can have the effect of distorting our perception of the situation we are in. For example, at certain times we may not be in danger at all – it just seems that way in the circumstances – and that could possibly lead to an overreaction, or even a panic reaction. It can work the other way too, in the sense that we may be very happy about something that has happened, feeling very good about a positive development, but we may not spot one or more dangers involved in the situation. Our positive feelings are leading us to focus on one side of the situation, but not the other.

The idea that we should not respond in anger, that we should count to ten, is well established and is wise counsel. However, it isn’t just about how we respond to people at the time. The balance of our blood chemistry can remain out of sync for an hour and a half or more, and that can mean that, if we make any decisions during that time, we may not be doing so with a balanced picture of the situation. I know full well that I have made mistakes in my life by making decisions at a time when emotions are running high and then regretted it later – and I am well aware from conversations in both my personal and professional lives, that this is a very common phenomenon.

For example, someone who has been hurt in or by a particular situation may decide: ‘Right, I’m not doing that again, I will not allow myself to be in that type of situation ever again’. So, it is, in effect, the emotional pain that is making the decision. But, by withdrawing from the type of situation that was hurtful on that occasion, we may be missing out on all the other occasions when it wasn’t hurtful and would actually have been very positive and enriching.

I am not suggesting that decisions should be entirely rational, with no emotional elements at all, as that would be unrealistic and would not reflect the reality of what it means to be human. But if we go to the other extreme and make lasting decisions when we are emotionally worked up (‘aroused’ to use the technical term), we may well regret doing so later – whether the emotions we are feeling are positive or negative or a mixture of the two. I suppose that what it boils down to is a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn many years ago: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.