Body language refers to the nonverbal signals that we use to communicate. It is the unspoken element of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and emotions. From our facial expressions to our body movements, the things we don’t say can still convey volumes of information.
Did you know that your use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact can enhance, support, weaken, or even sabotage your impact as a leader?
Here are three crucial things that every leader needs to know about body language:
1. You make an impression in less than seven seconds
In business interactions, first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as “trustworthy” or “suspicious,” “powerful” or “submissive,” everything else you do will be viewed through such a filter. If someone likes you, she’ll look for the best in you. If she mistrusts you, she’ll suspect all of your actions.
First impressions are made in less than seven seconds and are heavily influenced by your body language. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Make eye contact
Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. (To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)
- Watch your posture
Research from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University discovered that “posture expansiveness,” positioning oneself in a way that opens up the body and takes up space, activated a sense of power that produced behavioral changes in a subject independent of their actual rank or role in an organization. In fact, it was consistently found across three studies that posture mattered more than hierarchy in making a person think, act, and be perceived in a more powerful way.
- Shake hands
This is the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s also the most effective. Research shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake. (Just make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that your grip is firm but not bone-crushing.)
2. Building trust depends on your verbal-nonverbal alignment
Trust is established through a perfect alignment between what is being said and the body language that accompanies it. If your gestures are not in full congruence with your verbal message, people subconsciously perceive duplicity, uncertainty, or (at the very least) internal conflict.
Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language.
So, in a very real way, whenever leaders say one thing and their gestures indicate another, they simply don’t make sense. Whenever your body language doesn’t match your words (for example, rocking back on heels when talking about the organization’s solid future, or folding arms across chest while declaring openness) your verbal message is lost.
3. What you say when you talk with your hands
Have you ever noticed that when people are passionate about what they’re saying, their gestures automatically become more animated? Their hands and arms move about, emphasizing points and conveying enthusiasm.
You may not have been aware of this connection before, but you instinctively felt it. Research shows that audiences tend to view people who use a greater variety of gestures in a more favorable light. Studies also find that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or “wooden”) are seen as logical, cold, and analytic.
That’s one reason why gestures are so critical to a leader’s effectiveness and why getting them right in a presentation connects so powerfully with an audience.
I’ve seen senior executives make rookie mistakes. When leaders don’t use gestures correctly (if they let their hands hang limply to the side or clasp their hands in front of their bodies in the classic “fig leaf” position), it suggests they have no emotional investment in the issues or are not convinced about the point they’re trying to make.
To use gestures effectively, leaders need to be aware of how those movements will most likely be perceived. There are two common hand gestures and the messages behind them:
- Enthusiastic gestures
There is an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you want to project more enthusiasm and drive, you can do so by increased gesturing. On the other hand, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable, and less powerful.
- Grounded gestures
Arms held at waist height, and gestures within that horizontal plane, help you – and the audience – feel centered and composed. Arms at waist and bent to a 45-degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide) will also help you keep grounded, energized, and focused.
Watch for more types of hand gestures:
Body-language savvy is becoming part of an executive’s personal brand. Great leaders sit, stand, walk, and gesture in ways that exude confidence, competence, and status. They also send nonverbal signals of warmth and empathy – especially when nurturing collaborative environments and managing change.
Good body language skills can help you motivate direct reports, bond with audiences, present ideas with added credibility, and authentically project your personal brand of charisma. That’s a powerful set of skills for any leader to develop.