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March 5, 2018

Body Language: Speaking Without Words – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie

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Body Language: a True Story

Paying close attention to body language can have a significant effect at work. What follows is a true story!

A few years ago I worked at a company where I was responsible for the human resources management. I was there for several years, and I got to know some of the staff members very well.

Sometimes, a company has a "difficult" department. We had such a department, and when we appointed Jane, she was like the proverbial "new broom."

Jane took her work very seriously. She was dedicated, often took the initiative, helped out wherever she could, and worked hard to satisfy our clients.

Shortly after she joined the company, Jane faced three major life events within weeks of each other. I often had to counsel her, help her, or arrange support of some kind. During that time I got to know her very well on a personal level and developed immense respect for her.

Something Doesn't Look Right…

But, about three and a half years into her career with us, I started feeling that something wasn't quite right. To this day I can't tell you exactly what it was, but I observed changes in her body language that bothered me.

After I became aware of my initial discomfort, I realized that our eye contact wasn't as comfortable as it used to be. At times, she avoided making eye contact at all. She looked like a child caught doing something wrong, but trying her best to look innocent. It also seemed as if she tried to manipulate her body language to appear natural, which of course made it come across as unnatural! The whole situation was strange: why was she trying to look innocent? Why did she feel guilty?

Initially, I doubted myself and told myself to stop making up stories in my head. However, the feeling that something was wrong refused to go away. Eventually, I confided in one of the directors, and we decided to request an immediate department audit.

Caught Red-Handed

During the audit, it came to light that Jane had worked out an exceptionally cunning way of stealing from the company. When I read through the reports, I realized that the fraud had begun at more or less the same time that I had noticed a change in her behavior!

However, I knew that it was dangerous to take action based on assumptions, rather than facts. What if Jane was dealing with another stressful personal situation that wasn't known to me? Could that have changed her body language? Sure – that's why it was crucial to get professional help to make sure that it wasn't a confirmation bias deceiving me.

What Worked in My Favor?

Of course, it turned out that my conclusions were correct. I was confident that they would be, because:

  1. I knew Jane very well. Over the years I had built up an unconscious database of her honest body language. When her dishonest body language started, I just "knew" that something was wrong.
  2. I'm observant, and have a good memory when it comes to people and their behavior.
  3. I had a glass office that looked onto a large area of our workplace. So, I was able to observe her actions in her unguarded moments, too. Those were just as telling: during some of her phone calls, her demeanor looked guilty. If it weren’t for the other telltale signs, I would have thought that she was talking to a secret lover.

My brain had flashed a "red alert" message, just by comparing Jane's body language at this time to the way she had behaved in the past.

Body Language: Speaking Without Words

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last week, we discussed body language and how we use it to speak without words. Here are all the questions we asked during the chat, and some of the responses.

Q1. Which element of body language is most important to you: facial expression, gestures or posture? Why?

@DrTonyKainth I'm not sure anyone in isolation can give a complete sense of what's being communicated. I try to attend to all of these elements simultaneously but it is part of my job!

@bodytextpro I definitely hear tone of voice, then see facial expression and then posture. I think I ignore the hands… Unless it's one of those TV presenters who've learned arm-ography!

@NWarind All are important but none works if no one is listening.

Q2. In your country, what influence does your culture have on body language?

It was interesting to see how the same body language and facial expressions mean different things in different cultures.

@Midgie_MT Coming from a Canadian background, I look for open body language and direct eye contact.

@Yolande_MT In South Africa, where I live, some ethnic groups regard eye contact with an older or more senior person as disrespectful. Other groups regard the lack of eye contact as being untrustworthy.

Q3. How does paying attention to body language help? What are the benefits?

@ShajoeHR Body language can help us to discern when someone is not telling us the whole truth.

@SaifuRizvi Paying attention to body language helps us to understand the gravity of a situation, intention of an individual and what is not being said!

Q4. What part does body language play in creating (or destroying) rapport? Please explain.

@JKatzaman Body language that doesn't match what you say will cost you credibility with your audience.

@WonderPix Anything from posture to tone of voice to eye contact can impact our connections. We decipher based on our culture and experience.

Q5. How does body language contribute to (or combat) harrassment or bullying?

@MicheleDD_MT If your body language conveys confidence, people are less likely to bully you. Stand tall, maintain eye contact, speak with conviction. Bullies focus on people who are insecure.

@Jikster2009 Body language can be intimidating and make others feel uncomfortable, deliberately or unintentionally (if not self-aware). Having a relaxed and open posture could alleviate potential conflict/intimidation.

Q6. What pitfalls do we need to avoid when interpreting body language?

A common theme that emerged is that you need to check your assumptions.

@SailorsBen Don't assume your read is correct. It probably is, but don't assume it. Use probing questions to see if you're right. Don't be blunt, but you can adjust the angle you're taking, the voice you're using, how close you're standing, your body language, etc.

@Dwyka_Consult How you interpret other people's body language may also be influenced by how emotionally needy you are and what your expectations are.

@sittingpretty61 Take care when you label behavior or mannerisms during the conversation. Many people become defensive because they feel inferior and their behavior may not be the complete picture of who they are.

Q7. How do you handle a situation when words and body language don't match?

@harrisonia Speak up and don't wait too long. Gain clarity on the miscommunication.

@BrainBlenderTec Do something unexpected. Often it's because what they want to say is getting crossed by what they think they should be saying. If you throw them off, usually they will startle into the former.

Q8. What effect does your body language have on other people? How do you know?

@Mushcado Hopefully others will let you know, but let’s face it – that rarely happens. What we have to do is keep aware of the reactions (or lack of reactions) of those around us and then make a judgment.

@harrisonia There are times when I'm not angry but I don't feel like smiling; some people may misinterpret this as being unapproachable. On the contrary, if I am smiling, that does NOT mean I invite you to approach me!

Q9. In a stressful situation, what happens to your body language and what effect does that have on you?

@Midgie_MT I have been known, in stressful situations, to try and make myself smaller when in fact I need to consciously try to make myself "bigger," which in turn helps with confidence.

@SailorsBen I've found when I'm stressed, I'll cross my arms, look down, or glare out of the corner of my eye, and I'll get defensive. My facial expressions become combative or sarcastic. I may even walk away.

Q10. How can you change your body language yet stay true to your individuality/remain authentic?

@OkemaForever Always be whoever you are. We all have "mannerisms," and it's always best to communicate to the person you're concerned about, not to someone else, if you want to fix the issue.

@MicheleDD_MT Intention is important. If your intentions are good, then you are unlikely to change your body language to manipulate or deceive others.

To read all of the tweets, have a look at the Storify summary over here.

Coming Up

Many of us struggle with procrastination from time to time. Maybe you don't like a specific task, or it's just not important enough to you. But what if your procrastination is so bad that it turns into self-sabotaging behavior?

The topic for our next #MTtalk chat, on March 16, is "Busting Self-Sabotaging Habits." In which area of your life do you sabotage yourself because of procrastination? Click here to cast your vote.


In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you to learn more about body language:

Making a Great First Impression
Dealing With Angry People
Building Rapport
How Good Are Your Communication Skills?
Interpersonal Skills: Start Here
Body Language
Avoiding Cross-Cultural Faux Pas: Body Language
Can Your Body Language Make You More Powerful?
Cultural Intelligence
How Approachable Are You?
What's Empathy Got to Do With It?
Cross-Culture Communication
Mind Your (Body) Language

Club members can also access the full versions of the following articles:

Five Ways to Build Rapport Online
How to Manage Defensive People
Using the Phone Effectively
How to Work With Irritating People
How to Make "High-Quality Connections"

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