In Facilitation Skills, People Skills, Team Effectiveness

A recent article in New Scientist* offers some valuable insights — and they’re not necessarily the ones you may expect. Many management courses include some guidance on body language, the reading of which is seen as a key skill towards better Communicating and Influencing. Well known NLP techniques include keeping an eye on a person’s body language to read their non-verbal communication. We’re told that people talking to us with their arms crossed don’t really want to connect with us, or our views, and that if someone is avoiding eye contact….then maybe they are lying.

But we know that there are serious limitations to this simplistic view. Apply a healthy dose of common sense, and you instantly realise that some people may cross their arms because they are cold, and that in some cultures it’s quite rude to hold eye contact with someone whom you respect. There are now several scientific studies to back up our instincts — the New Scientist asserts “our scientific approach has provided little support for those who claim to speak fluent body-ese”. I think what is significant here is the importance of context, and fostering a wider awareness of how those around us are responding to conversations and our environment. Noticing non-verbal signals is important, and may provide vital clues about whether a colleague is listening to what you are saying, or whether someone is comfortable and relaxed in a given situation.

But scientific evidence highlights that there’s more than this. Instead of looking to body language to help us understand others, it suggests we can use our own body language to influence how we ourselves are feeling. It turns out that the brain picks up on our mannerisms, and is influenced by them. So, if we would like to feel more confident, we would do well to use confident poses and perhaps introduce a bit of a swagger to our walk. If we would prefer to be happier, we can take a vital step by smiling more. A study at the University of California asked volunteers to hold a “high power” pose (legs on the desk, hands behind your head) or a “low power” pose (hunched and small), for 2 minutes. Afterwards they tested levels of testosterone (power hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone), and discovered that the power posers had a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in cortisol, while the low-power posers showed a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol (Psychological Science, vol 21, 1463).

So body language turns out to be hugely important, but has the greatest potential when used as a tool for personal development — which is why we include this as part of the Project Leadership course too.

* New Scientist, 6 April 2013, pp 34-37

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