End goal: you want your body language to match your oral language, and ultimately enhance it.
It’s believed that as much as 90 percent of our communication comes from nonverbal cues, marking the importance of body language. Cues include gestures, stances, fidgeting, and whatever you do with your physicality in the moment of an interaction. These cues can negate what you’re verbally saying. In other words, your body is doing the talking.
Controlling and understanding your body language isn’t as easy as it sounds. Like emotional intelligence, it’s about becoming aware, harnessing it, and managing it. In plain terms, when you understand your body language, you can use it to your advantage. You just need to learn the difference between negative and positive body language. When done right, body language is “a shortcut to communicating what’s important.”
In order to ensure you’re using it to get ahead and communicate what’s most important, you first need to know the difference between what’s perceived as positive body language and the language that’s perceived as negative.
Positive body language.
Positive body language is perceived as openness. Envision a straight back, relaxed shoulders and a confident wide stance. Other features include graceful hand gesturing, smiling, and self-assured eye contact. Someone with positive body language will have an unbarred face, too. That translates to relaxed eyebrows, wide eyes, and a poised mouth. You can achieve openness by aspiring to feel open.
Negative body language.
Negative body language includes posture, gestures, and tics that wordlessly communicate negative emotions like anxiety, stress, anger, and disengagement. From a weak handshake to fidgeting, twitching, crossed arms, and aggressive hand gestures, there is a slew of behaviors that scream internal emotional turmoil.
When we feel negative about a situation, it will practically seep out of our pores and demonstrate itself in those nonverbal cues, like furrowed brows and a clenched jaw. Escaping negative body language isn’t the answer either because it’s a biological and primal way to communicate that we will always revert back to.
To master positive body language you must treat it like emotional intelligence and focus on heightening your awareness first. Then you can think about harnessing it and managing it for your betterment.
Start with awareness.
To get an idea of the body language you use, start with watching yourself. You can film yourself performing a speech or just use a mirror and practice talking about something you would talk about at work or in an interview. After you do this exercise, take note of the gestures and tics you displayed. Now imagine, if you were not practicing in front of a mirror, would you have had more tics? Possibly. We tend to be on our ‘best manners’ when we practice like this, so imagine yourself in a high pressure situation and think about how you may change your body language.
Once you get a sense of your body language, start keeping track of it for the next few weeks. Pay attention to the cues you use and tap into an awareness of your body. It also helps to observe others’ body language, as well. What do you pick up when you start matching what people say to what their bodies are doing? When you’re paying attention to your own cues, you might also want to think a bit about your own triggers.
There are certain situations, people, and places that spark nervousness and negativity within us. What signals is your body sending you in these moments?
Harness the power (of your body).
You are so powerful. Pause and read that once more.
Despite what you believe or what you may have been taught, the truth is that you can change yourself if you want to. If you’ve watched yourself on film, taken notes, and are horrified to discover you have a laundry list of nervous twitches, don’t fret. We all have something to work on. The beautiful thing is that you have the power to change it. For scientific proof, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on the very topic of changing your body language to shape who you are.
You can continue to observe your behavior to understand body language. Practice in the mirror and use Amy’s power poses to improve — trust me, you will. You can also ask for help. Ask a trusted friend, family member, boss, or co-worker to observe your body language and coach you when you fall back into your old habits.
Strike a balance.
Here’s the goal of it all: You want to strike a balance where not only is your body language matching your oral language, but it’s, in fact, making it better. Think of it as using positive body language, as described earlier, as a tool to compliment effective verbal skills — the ultimate enhancement.
To strike the best balance, you’ll need to have mastered the awareness and harnessing steps mentioned before, because without being fully aware of your strengths and flaws, as well as being able to reign them in, you won’t be able to activate your positive skills in a way that will take your verbal message to a kick-ass level. What I’m saying is: Don’t get ahead of yourself. Seek first to understand yourself, reign yourself in, then conquer. Being able to understand body language and use positive body language as an enrichment to oral communication is an act of mastery. It takes time — there is no end destination. You will forever be perfecting your skills.
To strike that perfect balance, you’ll need to link the message you’re conveying with the correct gesture or posture. For instance, using a steeple hand gesture is most commonly associated with lecturers. If you’re making a point that you’re dead-clear on, use this gesture. Other links would be uncrossing legs/arms/hands when having a difficult conversation to display openness. Finally, smiling. Smiling is a technique widely used to gain acceptance, calm others, and instill confidence. With most things, having a visual helps, so check out this video that demonstrates great body language.
No matter where you start with exploring and improving your own body language, know that body language is a prehistoric, if not biological, feature that is both powerful and organic. By simply paying attention and striving to make small and subtle improvements to your messaging, you will gain strides in your own betterment — just not overnight!
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