One of the most influential modes of communication we utilize in our day to day interactions is our non-verbal, or body language. It is the mode of communication which ignites our “gut level” emotions and responses. Research has shown that acquiring an understanding of body language increases one's ability to be successful at getting anything one wants out of any given situation.
Have you ever watched a couple sitting together and in minutes had a sense of how good or bad their relationship was? Did you ever wonder how you were able to come to this conclusion so quickly without any direct interaction? Whether you are aware of it or not we spend our days responding to people’s non-verbal cues projected through their body language and drawing conclusions about them from our observations.
Our body language reveals the truth we hide with our words from the world, including how we really feel about ourselves, our relationships, and our situations. Through our eye contact, gestures, body stance, and facial expressions the people we interact with can determine our intentions, the quality of our relationships, how masterful we are in any given situation, our confidence level, and what our true motivations and desires are.
The power of body language is found in the emotional response it creates. Feelings drive decisions and reactions in virtually every situation. Non-verbal cues trigger feelings which determine core assets of an individual such as: truthfulness, trustworthiness, sincerity, skill level, and leadership abilities. The interpretation of these cues can determine who we date, the job we get hired for, what level of success we obtain, and even who may be elected into influential political positions.
With such an important skill why don’t we spend years learning and developing effective body language skills? The truth is most people undervalue the importance of body language until they are looking for a deeper understanding of human behavior in a personal relationship, or to gain an edge in a competitive business situation.
Mastery of body language provides people with the keys to interpret the meaning behind specific gestures and body movement, as well as providing an understanding on how to project and communicate messages effectively when dealing with others. As a result, overall effectiveness in interpersonal relationships is greatly increased. The best way to begin this process of mastery is to learn the basic interpretation of the two core body language types – open presence and closed presence.
The closed presence body language type is featured in individuals who fold their body around the body’s center line, which runs straight down the middle of the body from the top of the head to the feet. The physical characteristics which create this type of presence are feet placed close together, arms held close to body, hands crossed on body or held together in front of body, small hand gestures kept close to the body, shoulders rolled forward, and eyes focused below eye level.
The messages sent out to the world by the closed presence type of body language is a lack of confidence, low self esteem, powerlessness, and a lack of experience. In extreme cases, one can even create the message of wanting to be invisible. The effects on the individual projecting this type of body language can range from simply not receiving the best opportunities possible to a worst case scenario of harboring a self-fulfilling view of victimization.
In contrast, the open presence is featured in individuals who create a sense of authority, power, and leadership by projecting confidence, success, strength, and skill mastery. The physical characteristics are feet held hip wide apart, open hand gestures used in conversation away from center line of the body, elbows held away from body, shoulders held back, straight stances, and eyes focused at the eye level of their listeners. These individuals are seen as attractive, successful, intelligent, and appear to have success come easily. We view this body language type as the “body language of leaders”.
To improve body language and begin to project an open presence, the key is eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most important communication tools we own. By using direct eye contact when interacting with others one can change the way people view them. When people begin to speak directly into a person’s eyes they are seen as confident, trustworthy, and skilled.
Hand gestures and facial expression are the second level of change one can make to be viewed with open presence. These modes of communication lend themselves to increasing the ability to communicate messages clearly and effectively. By using open hand gestures away from the body and expressive facial affect skillfully, greater impact is created when speaking by becoming more visually stimulating to the listener and increasing the amount of information provided during the interaction.
As children, from an early age we are taught that good boys and girls sit properly with legs together and hands folded in front of them. The encouragement to limit physical space as children can create some of the characteristics found in the body language of the closed presence in adulthood.
To counter this effect, one can begin to adopt the characteristics of the open presence body language and incorporate these manners into their natural state of being. Once this behavioral change is completed it will provide the same non-verbal impressions and messages as their open presence counterparts.
The mastery of body language is vital to creating the most effective presence in all interpersonal interactions. Individuals without this mastery are prone to be misunderstood, and find their efforts to communicate their ideas unsuccessful. With the ability to differentiate between the different modes of body language, anyone can achieve the mastery necessary to become successful in whichever endeavor they choose.
Dalli Simmons is a Senior Communication Skills Specialist, Professional Public Speaker, and a Certified School Psychologist currently working with corporate professionals at the consulting firm Exec/Comm.