Whether or not we believe the often quoted statistic that 93% of communication is non-verbal, most of us intuitively understand how important body language is to in-person communication. And yet, when I talk about the importance of body language to clients, I sometimes hear pushback that sounds something like this:
“Hey, just because I’m crossing my arms doesn’t mean I’m closed off to what someone’s saying. I might just be cold. Or I may be crossing my legs so I can be more comfortable and listen to them more intently.”
The first time I heard this pushback on the importance of body language, I stumbled a bit, but I also realized that I may have inadvertently been indoctrinated around what crossed arms and crossed legs communicate in a work setting. I now acknowledge that both points of view can be true at different times.
At face value, there’s nothing wrong with the argument of discounting body language if the person you’re communicating with understands your true intent. However, that’s a big IF because, unless you tell people your intent, people will infer it from other sources of information—including your body language. And the inferences they make may or may not line up with what you truly intended.
And even if you tell people your intent, they may not believe it. Think of a married couple retiring for the night when one partner says to the other, “I have something important I want to talk to you about.” The other partner answers, “Go ahead, and don’t let the fact that I’m lying in bed with my back turned towards you and my eyes closed make you think that I’m not listening.” No amount of verbal explanation about how well I can listen while in that physical position will make my partner feel that they truly have my undivided attention.
The key to effective body language isn’t to avoid a long list of facial expressions or postures that could potentially communicate something negative to “someone” out there. Instead, the key is to focus on the specific people in front of you right now and how you think they’re interpreting your body language. In some cases you’ll care about that, and in others you won’t, and that’s OK.
In the cases where it’s important that your intention isn’t misinterpreted, you have to place extra focus on how those people are reacting. Maybe you provide explanations about your body language, or maybe you just adopt certain body language that you know will align closely with your intention. For example, if you want to be perceived as someone who connects with others and is open, you might concentrate on making meaningful eye contact and using physical postures that communicate openness, like open arms and palms turned up.
So don’t feel trapped by convention about whether you may or may not cross your arms during a business conversation or about how exactly you should make eye contact to connect with someone. Instead, focus on the other person and how well you think your intention is coming across. And don’t over think it. If their body language and verbal reactions align with what you intended to communicate, maybe that’s all the thinking you need to do about your own body language in that situation.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.