Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Misreading body language, part of Body Language for Leaders.
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- Body language was the basis for our earliest form of communication. When the split second ability to realize if someone was safe or dangerous was often a matter of life or death. Nonverbal signals still help us form quick impressions, but as innate as this ability may be, not all of our impressions are accurate. The problem is that the world has changed, but our body reading ability is still based on a primitive, emotional reaction that hasn't changed much since humans began interacting with one another.
Because we all make mistakes when reading body language, your nonverbal signals won't always convey what you intended them to. In fact, you can count on people making five major mistakes. First, they'll look for the negative. People you work with are constantly trying to evaluate your state of mind by monitoring your body language. And since the human brain pays more attention to negative messages than it does to positive ones, people are mainly on the alert for any sign that indicates you're in a bad mood and not to be bothered.
So you may be more comfortable standing with your arms crossed, or you may be cold, but don't be surprised when others judge that gesture as resistant and unapproachable. Second, they won't consider the context. You can't really make sense of someone's nonverbal message unless you understand the circumstances behind it. That's called context. Context is this weave of variables that can include location, relationships, time of day, past experiences, and even things like room temperature.
Depending on the context, the same nonverbal signal can have a totally different meaning. Someone hunched over and hugging herself while sitting outside on a cold day sends a very different message than that same person in that same position sitting at her desk. One says, "I'm cold!" The other, "I'm in distress." There's some pieces of context that aren't so obvious, and your colleagues won't always have access to these insights. So if you yawn in the staff meeting because you were up early for an international call, let people know why you're tired.
Without this context, they may think you're just bored. Third, they'll find meaning in one gesture. All too often your colleagues will assign meaning to a single, and sometimes totally irrelevant, nonverbal cue. In reality, nonverbal cues occur in what's called the gesture cluster. Now that's a group of movements, postures, and actions that reinforce each other. A single gesture can have many meanings, or mean nothing at all. During a conversation, for example, you might look at your watch for any number of reasons.
But when that action is coupled with a glance at a door, drumming fingers on the table, and hands on thighs, that seated readiness position, it would be a cluster of signals that say you're finished talking and ready to leave. The problem is that people may jump to the wrong conclusion when you take that first glance at your watch. So if you were just checking to make sure you're not late for your next appointment, you need to say so. Fourth, they won't know your baseline.
Observing how a person normally behaves helps you spot meaningful changes from that baseline behavior. Now here's what can happen when you don't know someone's baseline. A few years ago, I was giving a presentation to the CEO of a financial services company, outlining a speech I was to deliver to his leadership team the next day, and it wasn't going well. Our meeting lasted almost an hour, and through that entire time the CEO sat at the conference table with his arms tightly crossed.
He didn't smile, lean forward, or nod encouragement. When I finished, he said, "Thank you," without making eye contact and left the room. As I'm a body language expert, I was sure that his nonverbal communication was telling me that my speaking engagement would be canceled, but when I walked to the elevator, the Executive's Assistant came to tell me how impressed her boss had been with my presentation. I was shocked and asked what he would've done had he not liked it? "Oh," said the Assistant, "He would've gotten up in the middle of the meeting "and walked out." You see the only nonverbal signals I'd received from that CEO were ones I judged to be negative.
What I didn't realize was that this was his normal baseline behavior. Fifth, they'll evaluate you through an array of biases. Now there's a woman in my yoga class who liked me from the moment we met. I'd prefer to believe that this was due to my charismatic personality, but I know for a fact it's because I resemble her favorite aunt. When biases work in your favor, it's called the Halo Effect, but biases can also work against you. What if instead of someone they like, you remind people of someone they despise? You might overcome it with time, but you can bet that their initial response to you won't be a good one.
Cultural biases are those shared values that determine which nonverbal behaviors feel normal and right, and which feel strange or wrong. When dealing with people from different backgrounds, realize that cultural biases interfere with their ability to accurately judge your motives. From greetings, to the amount of emotion displayed, to the use of touch and space. What's deemed proper and correct in one culture may be ineffective or offensive in another.
So what about you? As I was sharing these five mistakes, what came to mind? Can you think of times your body language has been misunderstood? Maybe it was a business meeting that went wrong, or a misunderstanding with your spouse. We all have nonverbal cues that can send the wrong messages. What cues of yours are most likely to be misunderstood?