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.