Join Carol Kinsey Goman for an in-depth discussion in this video Understanding how body-language signals are perceived, part of Body Language for Leaders.
- The senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company is speaking at a leadership conference in New York. Now he's a polished presenter with an impressive selection of organizational "war stories" delivered with a charming sense of humor. The audience likes him; they like him a lot. Then, as he finishes his comments, he folds his arms across his chest and says, "I'm open for questions. "Please ask me anything." At this point, there's a noticeable shift of energy in the room, from engagement to uncertainty.
The audience that was so attentive only moments ago is now unable to think of anything to ask. I was at that event, and later I interviewed members of the audience, none of whom recalled the arm movement, but all of whom remembered struggling to come up with a question. So what do you think happened? How could a simple gesture that the audience wasn't even aware of have had such an immediate impact? We continue to find out more and more about how body language affects the messages we're trying to send, and one of the findings from evolutionary psychology is that our brains are hardwired to respond to nonverbal cues even though most of us aren't consciously aware of the process.
All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth, and confidence as well as arrogance, indifference, and displeasure through their posture, their facial expressions, hand gestures, and use of space. The key to being an effective nonverbal communicator is to realize that the impact of these signals depends less on what you meant, and more on how most people interpret those signals. So what the conference speaker needed to realize was that most people in the audience would unconsciously read his crossed arms as a signal that he wasn't at all open for questions.
A classic and often misquoted study by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA found that the total impact of a message is based only seven percent on the words used. Much more important are facial expressions and other forms of body language, responsible for 55% of the total impact, and tone of voice, responsible for 38%. Well obviously you can't listen to a person speaking a foreign language and understand 93% of what's being communicated by simply observing their body language. Mehrabian was only studying the communication of emotions, particularly the feelings of liking and disliking.
But emotions are a big part of your impact as a leader because emotions are highly infectious. We all tend to mimic the postures and expressions of those we work with. As a leader, any strong emotion you display, like enthusiasm or disgust, will cause the people around you to automatically mirror or copy that expression. And it isn't just a physical response, since that facial expression will start to trigger the corresponding feeling. That's why smiling at someone can brighten up their day, while angry frowns upset them.
Body language also plays a crucial role in making sure your team truly understands key messages. If you're going to talk about new initiatives or major change, or if you have any bad news to deliver, my advice is to do so in person. Remember, it's only in face-to-face encounters that our brains process that continual cascade of nonverbal cues that we use as the basis for building trust and professional intimacy, both of which are crucial to persuasion and good communication.