Leading Blog






05.09.11

5 Mistakes People Make When Reading Your Body Language

When we communicate there are two conversations going on. Verbal and nonverbal.

Our brains are hardwired to respond to nonverbal signals. Unfortunately we often don’t even know how we are reacting to them or how others are reacting to us and therefore are unable to use them to our advantage. This becomes very apparent when we are reacting to nonverbal communication from people from different cultures. Thus what might seem right in one culture may be ineffective or offensive in another.

Silent Language of Leaders
Communications expert Carol Kinsey Goman wrote The Silent Language of Leaders to help us become more aware of the messages we are sending and to better read the signals of others. When there is a disconnect between your verbal and your nonverbal communication, you don’t make sense. People will tend to disregard what you say and focus on what you don’t say.

My mother always told me, “It doesn’t matter if what you say is right, if your tone is wrong, then it’s wrong.” Goman would add: “How can sometimes be more revealing of your true meaning than the what contained in the words. Leaders must therefore keep in mind that when they speak, their listeners won’t only be evaluating their words; they will also be automatically ‘reading’ their voices for clues to possible hidden agendas, concealed meanings, disguised emotions, unexpected surprises—anything, in short, that will help determine whether or not they can rely on what they're being told.”

Goman defines our nonverbal communication—body language—as the management of time, space, appearance, posture, gesture, vocal prosody, touch, smell, facial expression, and eye contact.

Goman says that people look for leaders to project two sets of nonverbal signals—power and authority and warmth and empathy—and it’s important to employ the right signals at the right time. Which means that the body language signals that work so well when announcing a new business strategy are not helpful (and in fact may sabotage your efforts) when building collaborative teams.
Successful leaders don’t memorize “the right” physical gestures and facial expressions to display at appropriate times as though they were some kind of preprogrammed robot. But they are aware that their body language dramatically impacts colleagues, clients and staff. They understand that for a variety of reasons, even the most well-meaning behaviors will sometimes be misinterpreted, and they are ever alert to finding authentic ways to align their nonverbal communication with the messages they want to deliver.
Reading nonverbal communication can be tricky for a number of reasons. Here are five mistakes people make when reading body language:
  1. They don’t consider the context. You can’t make sense of someone’s nonverbal message unless you understand the circumstance behind it. It’s important to remember, Goman says, that your team members, colleagues, and staff can’t possibly know all the variables that create the context of your actions. You yawn and stretch, and your staff assumes that you’re bored—because no one realizes you’ve been up since dawn to place an overseas call.
  2. They find meaning in a single gesture. Too often they will base their opinion on a single nonverbal cue. And because the brain pays more attention to negative messages, they will look for and react to signs that you are in a bad mood. For example, if you pass a colleague in the hallway and don’t make eye contact, she may jump to the conclusion that you are upset with the report she just turned in. Goman adds, “when you make any nonverbal display of anger, irritability, or annoyance, people are more likely to hold back their opinions, limit their comments, and look for ways to shorten their interaction with you.”
  3. They don’t know your baseline. If they don’t know you well enough to know your normal behavior, they have nothing to compare your current nonverbal behavior to. What may look like negative behavior may be the standard “happy” cues you send out.
  4. They evaluate through the filter of personal biases. Positively or negatively, people can judge you based on their own biases—weight, race, appearance, gender. They will be sure you’re just like everyone else that has a certain characteristic.
  5. They evaluate through the filter of cultural biases. “When it comes to dealing with a multicultural workforce, we create all sorts of obstacles by failing to consider cultural biases—theirs and ours.”
You may have good reasons for communicating what you are communicating, but body language is in the eye of the beholder. So understanding their perception of you and accurately reading the body language of others, is an important aspect of your leadership success.

When it comes to building collaboration, even the seating arrangement in your office makes a difference. “Seating people directly across from your desk places them in an adversarial position. Instead, place the visitor’s chair at the side of your desk, or create a conversation area (chairs of equal size set around a small table—or at right angles to each other) and send signals of informality, equality, and partnership.”

Gorman has made available on her web site, videos and articles to reinforce the material presented in her book. Interestingly, Goman predicts that because of new visual technologies, body language skills will become even more crucial than they are today. Video communication exposes a leader’s body language to evaluation to a greater degree. She also predicts that with the emphasis now on more collaborative structures, a leader’s body language will have to project trust, inclusion and rapport.

Look for more Body Language Notes on the LeadershipNow Facebook page.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:04 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Communication , Human Resources



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