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June 6, 2023

How to Use Body Language to Be a Better Leader – Tips From the Experts!

Bruna Martinuzzi


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What isn't said can often be gleaned from others' body language. Correctly decoding non-verbal messages others send can help you to spot unspoken issues and emotions. 

What's more, your own body language, as a leader, can either enhance or undermine how you are viewed. Positive body language can help leaders be more empathetic and establish better communication. It can strengthen the connection with employees and inspire trust.

To get some tips on effective non-verbal leadership communication, I spoke with Joe Navarro, ex-FBI special agent and one of the world's leading experts on non-verbal communication. Navarro is now an instructor and private consultant to major corporations. He is the best-selling author of over 14 books, including his latest, "Be Exceptional: Master the Five Traits That Set Extraordinary People Apart." I was just as thrilled to speak with Anne-Maartje Oud, CEO and Founder of The Behaviour Company and body language expert.

What Is Non-verbal Communication?

"Non-verbal communication," says Navarro, "is anything that communicates a message but is not a word." It's everything from our facial expressions and gestures, to what we wear, to how well we are groomed.

Even good manners constitute non-verbal body language, Navarro says. "So things such as:

  • opening the door for others.
  • using a good tone of voice. 
  • smiling. 
  • being kind. 

"These are all forms of non-verbals, and these are power to businesspeople. Never underestimate the power of being kind and liking others. Period."

Welcoming black, male leader opening the door, looking at camera and smiling.
© GettyImages/andresr

You are always on display as a leader, whether in a one-on-one meeting or when virtually presenting to large groups. As Navarro explains, our body language constantly transmits information about our thoughts, feelings and intentions.

How to Improve Non-verbal Communication

Being conscious of the non-verbal messages we send is essential. For one thing, this awareness will help us ensure that our body language matches our words. It will also help us avoid negative body language that could make us appear unfriendly or lacking confidence.

To get you started on improving your non-verbal communication, try these tips from Navarro:

Take Your Time

"One of the things we understand universally," says Navarro, "is that a leader exercises control by how they enter a room, how they look around, and so forth. And, of course, how they dress and the manner in which they walk and carry themselves.

"Leaders don't do anything hurriedly. They don't have to. They're leaders. So, we say that they have temporal control.

"One of the things we see over and over in leadership," adds Navarro, "is this way you carry yourself where you don't have to hurry." 

Use Cadence

Navarro says another way leaders exercise temporal control is that "they take the time to meet and greet everybody, to make good solid eye contact with them. And then they deliver their message. They exercise what we call 'temporal control,' which is they use cadence."

I asked him to give an example of leaders using cadence. "Winston Churchill used this brilliantly," he replied. "Martin Luther King was also exceptional in using cadence. And we saw it also with Abraham Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Speech:

Four score and seven years ago, [pause]. 

Our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, [pause]

"Because you're speaking in cadence," explains Navarro, "you're taking up time and the person that controls time, in essence, controls." 

Navarro concludes by saying that "these are things that a leader can use and demonstrate, and in so doing, a leader is communicating that they're in charge because they're not in a hurry. Because they can take their time walking in, walking about, and dominating the conversation by speaking in tones that demonstrate that time is theirs. And, of course, speaking in cadence beautifully controls the attention and time." 

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However, your body language shouldn't always be the same for every person you talk to in every conversation. Just like verbal communication, you should tailor your non-verbal communication to fit the context. Here are a couple of examples where some nuance is needed:

Body Language When Navigating a Difficult Conversation With an Employee

With her hands clasped in front of her, the mature adult businesswoman listens with a serious look on her face to the unrecognizable female client.
© GettyImages/SDI Productions

Conducting an effective difficult conversation with an employee is a critical leadership competence. You may need to give a negative performance review, deliver stern feedback, or reset an employee's expectations. 

So how can body language help you to handle these difficult conversations successfully?

"That's a great question. First of all," says Navarro, "you have to have boundaries. You have to demonstrate that you are, in fact, a leader, but you are willing to listen. And listen as long as it takes so that the person feels that their message is being received and that they have their say." 

Navarro emphasizes that it's essential to be direct, not fidgeting. "Just think about what you need to say in advance and then just say it. And if you have to tell someone they're being put on notice because they're failing in their task, then you just lay it out, just like that." 

I asked Oud to elaborate on any body language cues a leader should give when handling a difficult conversation with an employee. 

"It depends," replied Oud, "on if the conversation is difficult for you as a leader (maybe you are new to this kind of conversation on how to give constructive feedback) or if the difficulty is there for the employee." 

This is an important distinction. We explored how a leader can make an employee feel comfortable during a difficult conversation.

"Being a good listener helps. Listening is key," explains Oud. "Also, ensure that your posture, gestures and voice are not antagonistic. We can be empathetic with our gestures but also firm with boundaries." 

Our message must be plain and understandable, stresses Oud, "and supported by congruent behavior: a straight posture, a clear voice and good eye contact. Use your eyes to gaze as you listen but not stare with acrimony." 

According to Oud, it also helps to validate the fears and apprehensions of others. "In the end, the message must be conveyed as humanely as possible." 

Body Language When Communicating With a Neurodivergent Employee

Neurodivergent people have a brain that works differently from the average or "neurotypical" person. This includes differences in ways of learning, ways of communicating, or ways of perceiving the environment. 

Should leaders adapt their body language and communication style when talking to neurodivergent employees?

Oud says: "Adaptation is key for anyone who wants to communicate effectively. As a leader, you should observe and understand how you can create comfort during your conversation to help others, yourself and the company achieve the goals ahead." 

"Neurodiversity," she adds, "is such a broad category that may require standing further away or perhaps making less eye contact, slowing down how fast you speak, or changing the tone of voice. Observation is key to determining what will make the other person or team more psychologically comfortable and how to act accordingly."

Remember that no two neurodivergent people are the same. What works well for one person, may not for another. So if in doubt as to how you can adapt your body language to make them feel more comfortable, just ask!

Focusing on what makes a person more psychologically comfortable ties in with an important principle Joe Navarro talks about: the importance of observing people's signs of "comfort" and "discomfort."

Focusing on these two behavioral clues will give you the necessary information to help you adapt your approach accordingly. It will yield powerful insights that can make you a more effective communicator. Asking yourself, "Are people comfortable or uncomfortable?" is one of the top ways of becoming body-language smart.

Taking Control of Your Body Language

When we seek to learn about body language, many of us look for tips on detecting deception or projecting power. But the overarching message I have gotten from Joe Navarro and Anne-Maartje Oud is to focus instead on observing the signs of comfort or discomfort in others. Using these cues to modify your body language so that others feel at ease around you is a surefire way to become a better communicator and achieve greater success in your interaction.

Discover more about using body language to communicate more effectively, with our recommended resources:

Body Language
Adapting Your Communication Style Video
Body Language Battle Video
What Every BODY Is Saying
5 Moves to Master Body Language Infographic

Bruna Martinuzzi

About the Author:

Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, and presentation-skills training.

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