Body Language

Our body is constantly sending messages about our feelings and emotions over and above what we are saying. Understand this language so you can communicate better

Communicating in a groupHave you ever had a conversation with someone wearing dark glasses? If so, you know how uncomfortable it feels. Since you can't see the person's eyes, you are unsure of how s/he is actually reacting.

Our body speaks its own language: each time you move a hand, or your eyes or even shift your weight you give away what you are thinking at that particular moment. clearly, actions do speak louder than words!

Know your body's language

Body language is a form of non-verbal communication that involves the use of stylised gestures, postures, and physiologic signs, which act as cues to other people. Hundreds of years of research have concluded that we depend heavily on body language to reach conclusions about a person's honesty, attitudes and preferences.

In fact, lawyers and judges also make decisions about innocence based on the body language of the accused. Psychologists and therapists rely heavily on their clients' sitting posture, hand movements and eye contact to gauge what kind of mental disturbance they may be having.

Body language also decides if we like a person or not. According to Dr Albert Mehrabian, world authority on body language: Total Liking = 7 per cent verbal liking + 38 per cent vocal liking + 55 per cent facial liking.

So although you may think you loved a teacher's class because she taught so well, in all likelihood her words left less impact on you than the animated gestures she used and how well modulated her voice was.

Moreover, since it's tougher to control body language than our words, people choose to rely more on these signals to gauge the feelings involved, especially in difficult situations.

Imagine that your boss takes you aside and gives you a talk about your poor performance. You can choose not to say anything but how could you not send a non-verbal message? Nodding gravely would be a response. So would blushing, avoiding or making direct eye contact, shaking your head affirmatively or negatively.

While you can shut off your linguistic channels of communication by refusing to speak or write, it is virtually impossible to avoid sending signals through your body.

This is why it becomes very important to understand the language that our body speaks and learn effective ways of adjusting non-verbal communication to make it more effective.

Use body language to your advantage

Experts believe that one of the most important precursors to success is how one controls his or her body language. For example, if you have a habit of crossing your arms while talking, people could perceive that as a sign of being rude. Although this may just be a habit with you, most people would unconsciously interpret your gesture as untrustworthy and judge you based on your actions.

Using the right body language sends out positive signals to people you meet. Not only will you be liked and trusted, but this could also hugely boost your relationships, career and even your self-esteem.

Research has found that nearly all body language behaviours include one or more of eight primary elements.

Here are some tips on the universally accepted way of using these eight elements.

  1. Face: A person's face communicates emotions clearly. Smiles for instance convey friendliness. You can express warmth and acceptance on your face by thinking positive thoughts; when you think good things, it's likely to show up in your expression!
  2. Eyes: They are the window to your soul. Maintaining eye contact gives an impression of honesty and genuineness; poor eye contact may indicate lack of interest, being untruthful, shyness or a feeling of superiority.What's good eye contact then? Focus your eyes on the other person, and gently shift your gaze away from their face and then back. Never stare into a person's eyes or their forehead—it conveys doubt, hostility or insincerity. Avoid blinking frequently as it indicates anxiety and lack of confidence.
  3. Gestures: Stroking the chin while listening suggests that the listener is contemplating what is being said. Similarly, nodding conveys interest and understanding. Pointing can have a cultural significance—in the USA, pointing with an extended finger is common; while in Asia, it is considered rude. Handshakes are a universal gesture of greeting.Fidgeting, tapping a pen, drumming on the desk, jingling pocket change, shifting from one foot to the other are all considered negative body language—so avoid them.
  4. Postures: Crossing arms and legs are considered defensive gestures, indicating barriers and an attempt to protect oneself. Hands on the hips may suggest superiority. In a face-to-face conversation, always sit at a slight angle and lean forward when speaking. This indicates genuine interest. Avoid slouching, leaning back and stretching your feet in front of you.
  5. Tone: We pay more attention to the inflection, pitch and pace of a speaker's voice rather than the words they use. So keep your voice wide awake, smile when you speak, avoid artificial accents, enunciate clearly and emphasise important words.
  6. Movement: Moving toward another person may send a message of dominance or assertiveness, while moving away from another person may send a message of avoidance, submission, or simply bringing the interaction to a close.
  7. Touch: This is one of the most powerful elements of body language used for friendship, professional, social, and intimacy purposes. Touch has cultural significance; in Asian cultures a while greeting someone, a touch on the shoulder is adequate, while Americans prefer hugging or kissing.
  8. Appearance: Dressing and hygiene says a lot about you and your mood. A few pointers: dress neatly and appropriately; avoid overpowering perfumes and hair oils. Use minimal make-up and jewellery. Clothes need to be ironed, colour co-ordinated and occasion specific.Yet body language is not always reliable. Sitting with your arms crossed is often perceived as a defensive, stand-off posture. But it might simply mean that you are feeling cold!

Don't jump to conclusions

Body language can have a multitude of meanings depending on several factors, and it is a serious mistake to assume that you can decide the truth in any given case.

A better idea is to look for clusters of behaviour instead of just one action. If someone has their arms crossed and their lips pursed disapprovingly, it's a fairly safe bet they are on the defensive.

Most body language experts favour the Rule of Four—look for at least four signals suggesting the same thing before totally believing it.

So while some proponents do claim that body language is the key that makes it possible to read a person 'like a book', approach that thought with caution! An awareness of body language can certainly boost your understanding of others, but it's unlikely to transform you into a mind reader.

And finally, remember that your body language is only a reflection of your inner self. If you have a positive attitude, high self-esteem and confidence it will automatically show up as appealing body language!

For a quiz on how aware you are of your body language, pick up the July 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

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