“You cannot not communicate” – you’ll no doubt have heard this statement by Paul Watzlawick. We still communicate even when we don’t say anything. That is because language accounts for only a small part of our effect on others. It is first and foremost our body language and secondly our voice that conveys a message. And conversely: A change in our body language can influence our thoughts and feelings.
Our bodies never lie. Whatever we say or do, we are constantly sending out non-verbal messages – even if we don’t actually want to. And our body expresses itself even faster than we do with words. We show our inner feelings about one second before a word is spoken. Our body language and voice tell us a lot about our emotions and our relationship to our fellow human beings. As the old saying goes: “A smile is worth a thousand words”.
And this has a huge impact: 55% of the way we come across depends on our body language (posture, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, etc.), 38% on our voice (tone, rate of speech, etc.) and only 7% on the information we convey. Have you ever tried to record the same answer machine message while standing, sitting or lying down? You will find that you come across quite differently. Why then do 99% of people only prepare the content when they have to hold a meeting or a presentation? This is a shame!
Take note of how you come across
I often encounter quick thinkers who also talk very rapidly and forget to engage with the person they are speaking to. My recommendation to them, and everyone else, is to start by observing yourself – ideally using a video. What does my voice say about me? Do I come across as confident or somewhat unsure? Do I sit or stand up straight? Do my gestures match what I am saying? Do the corners of my mouth turn downwards or upwards when I adopt a supposedly neutral facial expression? Most of the time, we are not even aware of how we come across – or we don’t correctly evaluate the impression we make.
You should also observe other people – e.g. in meetings or on the tram – instead of always staring at your smartphone… What does their posture say about them and their relationship to the person they are with? Do they like him/her? Are these people experiencing feelings of anger, fear, pleasure, grief, surprise, disgust or contempt? Scientists have discovered that the signals for these basic emotions are the same all around the world. If you regularly observe others and learn to assess them, it helps you to recognize conflicts earlier and thus solve them better.
Observe then act
After gaining these insights, you can consciously act on them. Here are a few tips:
- Adopt an upright posture – with your sternum raised and shoulders tilted slightly backwards.
- When engaging in conversations, it is advisable to tilt your upper body slightly forwards. This shows that you are interested and open – and that you are concentrating on what the other person is saying.
- In contrast, never adopt a posture where you are partly turning away from the other person. This gives the impression that you are disinterested or appears dismissive.
- When listening to what someone is saying, assume a relaxed sitting position. If you want to say something, allow your body to tense slightly.
- Maintain eye contact – otherwise you will create the impression that you are disinterested or unsure or that you have something to hide.
- Smile ‘softly’ with your eyes. This creates a friendly and open impression. And smile with your mouth closed as this makes you seem more likeable.
- By nodding from time to time (but not too often!), you show that you are listening and agree with the other person.
- If you want to really emphasize a statement, pause for three to five seconds after you have spoken.
- Make gestures but don’t exaggerate them. When giving a presentation, be careful not to hold your arms against your body, e.g. by simply letting them hang at your sides. Ideally, you should move your hands between your hips and shoulders. Test out different gestures in front of the mirror.
- Avoid constantly moving your body (e.g. rocking on the balls of your feet or drumming your fingers). This shows that you are nervous.
- Wear clothes that you feel comfortable in as this affects how you speak. And when it comes to choosing clothes, remember that colors are noticed first, then shapes. So don’t choose aggressive colors.
- If you are negotiating and you have reached a deadlock, stand up and serve your counterpart a cup of coffee. This movement will help to break the tension.
Your appearance and behavior express the image that you have of yourself and how much (or how little) you value the person you are talking to. This has a major influence on the impression you create and how successful you are.
The crucial factor when implementing all of these tips is that the message you are conveying, your body language and your voice must all be in tune – otherwise, you will not appear credible and genuine. You can’t control your body language 100%. The person you are talking to will sense whether you mean what you say.
Using our bodies to shape our feelings and thoughts
Up to now, we have focused on how your posture influences the way you come across. However, it also works in reverse: You can use your posture to influence your feelings. If you stand up straight, more oxygen flows into your lungs and reaches your brain. This makes you stronger and makes you feel more positive – and the person you are speaking to will notice this. The German psychologist Doris Wolf rightly says: “It is impossible to feel depressed if you stand up straight, put on a smile, breathe deeply and firmly, and look straight ahead”. The German social psychologist Fritz Strack conducted an experiment that demonstrated that those participants who had a pencil between their lips (i.e. who smiled artificially) found cartoons more amusing than those with no pencil.
This means that the body and mind work as a team and influence each other. Doris Wolf says: “Whenever we think something, it has an effect on our bodies and usually also on our feelings.” And if you adopt a strong and upright position – using the approach known as ‘power posing’ recommended by the American social psychologist Amy Cuddy – you boost your self-confidence (find out more about this at: Link). If you master your body language and use it consciously, you strengthen your impact and also make yourself stronger – what more could you want?
© Claudia Kraaz