Making the right moves

Body language is more innate for human beings than language and even facial expressions – it comes pre-programmed within us, which is why people who are born blind can use the same body language expressions as those who are sighted

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Smile for the cameras? Maybe not: Pop singer Beyonce (centre) exits the lift just moments after witnessing her sister Solange (right) attack her husband Jay Z (left)


There have been numerous studies that show how effectively body language can give information about what a person is feeling. At Princeton University, a team performed an experiment where they asked participants to judge from pictures whether the person was feeling joy, loss, victory or pain. Some photos showed facial expressions only, some showed body language and some both.

The results showed that participants more accurately guessed the pictured emotion based on body language — alone or combined with facial expressions — than on facial context alone.

When properly used, body language can be your chance to achieve greater career success by helping you develop positive business relationships. It can enable you to influence and motivate the people around you, in turn improving productivity. It can help you bond with members of your team, and present your ideas with more impact. 

Finding the correlation between body language and its effect on business doesn't just mean within the walls of an office. Take the media story earlier this year about Beyonce watching passively as her sister, Solange, launched a violent attack on her husband Jay Z in a lift. According to Judi James, body language expert, one of the reasons she may not have stepped in during the attack could have been for commercial reasons. 

'There is a kind of law among siblings that you protect them and Beyonce's lack of reaction is amazing,' she said in an article for the Daily Mail, adding: 'It suggests that Beyonce either agreed with her sister's point of view or she was completely obsessed with protecting her brand.'

Beyonce is one of many celebrities over the years who have had their body language interpreted. From working out whether celebrity couples are on the verge of divorce to determining who has the upper hand in political partnerships, column inches are taken up by experts analysing the way their body language often belies what they are saying or the expressions on their faces.

But how can the rest of us make sure that the signals we are giving can help further our careers? Here are some tips on what to do – and what not to do – as far as body language is concerned, in the workplace.

Stand tall

How we feel affects how we stand. In order to be seen as confident, you must stand tall, with your neck elongated, ears and shoulders aligned, chest slightly protruding, and legs slightly apart, distributing weight evenly.

'This does several things. It changes the chemicals in our brain to make us feel stronger and more confident, and it gives the outward appearance of credibility, strength, and vitality.' says Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language.

People often slump their shoulders either due to bad backs, fatigue, lack of confidence, or general ambivalence. 'This will give others the impression of insecurity, laziness, and a general sense of unhappiness,' Reiman adds.

Realign your body to match others

If you physically align yourself with another person in a business meeting, you can defuse a tense situation person and bring across an air of collaboration. Mirroring movement that others make in a subtle way indicates a desire to agree.

Don't fidget

When we’re nervous or stressed, we tend to pacify with some form of self-touching, non-verbal behaviour: we twiddle fingers, fiddle with jewellery, twirl our hair, fidget — and when we do any of these things, we immediately make a massive detrimental impact on our credibility. 'This demonstrates weakness and a lack of confidence,' says Reiman.

Don't gesticulate too much

In business, small gestures tend to demonstrate the biggest points.

'It is rare to see the alpha of the group wildly flailing about,' Reiman says. 'Powerful business people tend to use smaller, more subtle hand gestures to demonstrate their point with authority.'

Maintain eye contact

Maintain positive eye contact. You may be an introvert, you may be shy, or your cultural background may have taught you that extended eye contact with a superior is not appropriate, but businesspeople from the US, Europe, Australia (and many other parts of the world), will expect you to maintain eye contact 50–60% of the time. 

'Cultural respective eye contact is one of the main components of non-verbal communication,' Reiman explains. The ability to gaze at another while speaking denotes authority, confidence, and presence. 'Studies suggest that holding eye contact while speaking has an enormous impact on your ability to persuade. Lack of eye contact often implies deception,' she says. When breaking eye contact, it is better to break off to the left or to the right, as looking down suggests insecurity.

A simple technique to improve eye contact, if it is something you struggle with when you meet a business colleague, or employer, is to look into his or her eyes long enough to notice what colour they are.

Perfect your handshake

The right handshake can give you instant credibility and the wrong one can cost you the job or the client. A dead fish, limp handshake is as awful as a bone-crushing grip. The first makes you appear to be a wimp and the second signals that you are a bully. So practise on your nearest and dearest to perfect the right amount of pressure.

Smile

'The smile is accompanied by increased activity in the left pre-frontal cortex — the seat of positive emotions,' Reiman says. Smiling demonstrates confidence, openness, warmth, and energy. It also sets off the mirror neurons in your listener instructing them to smile back, she says. 

'Of course, worse than the non-smiler is the perma-grinner, who smiles too often and is perceived as insincere and misleading,' she adds.

Don't roll your eyes

Eye rolling is a sign of contempt, frustration, exasperation, and aggression, Reiman says. It signals to your listener that you don't appreciate or respect them or what they are saying. 'While for some it's a habit, it is a completely conscious act that can be avoided with self-awareness.'

"Studies suggest that holding eye contact while speaking has an enormous impact on your ability to persuade. Lack of eye contact often implies deception"

Tonya Reiman