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Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for the company or a politician promoting a vision for the country, people interpret what you say to them only partially from the words you use. They are picking up most of your message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from your nonverbal signals.
Understanding body language is critical whether you are a chief executive officer, a first-line supervisor, or a candidate for president of the United States. But unlike political candidates, most business people are oblivious to the impact of the nonverbal signals they send.
Which can be a big problem.
The female manager who constantly flips her hair as she speaks or smiles too much when discussing a critical business issue probably doesn't realize that she has minimized her chances of being taken seriously. The team leader who reserves head nods, forward leans and direct eye contact for only a few members of his team may not know that he is demoralizing the rest of the team.
The first step to gaining a nonverbal advantage is awareness - and one way to increase awareness is to learn from experience. The good news is that it doesn't always have to be your own experience.
If you were not watching the political debates, you missed an opportunity to learn from some body language dos and don'ts. Here are five tips from the debates that would apply to leaders in any kind of organization.
Tip One: With nonverbal communication, it's not how the sender feels that's most important; it's how the observer perceives how the sender feels
Body language interpretations are often made deep in the subconscious mind, based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn't changed much since humans began interacting with one another. Because reading body language is an ancient and primarily process, your audience may not always know why they get that "something just isn't right," or "I trust this person" feeling - but most often it has nothing at all to do with a critical analysis of the statements you make. Instead, it has everything to do with what the audience believes you really mean.
A famous debate signal occurred in 1992 when incumbent President George H.W. Bush looked at his watch while his opponent, Bill Clinton, who would win the election, spoke.
Why did he look at his watch? It doesn't matter. What does matter, is that to the viewing audience, President Bush's gesture conveyed boredom - as if he had better things to do with his time and was wondering when this annoying inconvenience would end.
This is a common problem with body language: often your nonverbal signals don't convey what you intended them to. You may be slouching because you're tired, but your team will most likely read it as a sign of disinterest. You may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may be cold), but others see you as resistant and unapproachable. And keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuck in your pockets can give the impression that you're insecure or hiding something - whether you are or not.
Tip Two: Watch those facial expressions!
Have you ever interviewed for a job? Ever been interviewed in a group setting? If you have, then you probably did your best to come across as qualified, confident, and likable.
Let's suppose the interviewer asked you a question that you hoped wouldn't come up. Did you clench your jaw, raise your eyebrows in amazement, and grimace to show your annoyance? Or did you sigh, smile condescendingly, and shake your head?
Can you imagine the impression you'd make if you did any of those things in an interview? Do you think you'd get the job? Do you think you'd even make the next round?
Job interviews are often as much about body language and impressions as they are about issues and substance. If you think of the debates as a super-sized job interview - and in many ways they are - you can begin to see why facial expressions have such an impact.
Both candidates made facial expression errors. In most of the debates, Senator Obama minimized his emotional reactions and reinforced the impression that he is remote and "cold." Senator McCain's forced grins and eye rolling in the third debate sent a negative signal that was reflected instantly in polls rating likeability: Obama scored 70% to McCain's 22%.
Tip Three: Don't underestimate the power of touch
While Senator Obama shook hands with audience members after the debates, only Senator McCain touched anyone during a debate. Toward the end of the second debate, McCain walked into the audience and patted a U.S. military veteran on the back and then shook his hand, which produced a genuine smile from the veteran. McCain's gesture was exquisitely done and worked very much in his favor.
Usually considered to be the most primitive and essential form of communication, we are programmed to feel closer to someone who's touched us. The person who touches also feels more connected. It's a compelling force and even momentary touching can create a human bond. A touch on the forearm that lasts a mere 1/40 of a second can make the receiver not only feel better but also see the giver as being kinder and warmer.Touch is so powerful and effective that clinical studies at the Mayo Clinic show that premature babies who are stroked grow 40 percent faster than those who do not receive the same amount of touching. And touch retains its power -- even with adults in business settings. A study on handshakes by the Income Center for Trade Shows showed that people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake hands with them.
Tip Four: When your body language is out of sync with your words, people believe what they see
Anytime Senator McCain was speaking in the first debate, Senator Obama oriented his body toward McCain and looked directly at him. In doing so, he sent a nonverbal signal of interest and respect. McCain's decision to avoid looking at Obama during that debate, was not only dismissive, it was counter to McCain's stated position that Democrats and Republicans need to work together on behalf of the American people.
In fact, his failure to look at Obama was so off-message that if I had been coaching McCain, I would never have allowed it. To me, it was the biggest nonverbal stumble - and the one most significantly against-message - that I saw in all the presidential debates.
In the same way, a business leader who stands in front of a thousand employees - and talks about how much he welcomes their input - derails that message if he hides behind a lectern, or leans back away from his audience, or shoves his hands in his pockets. All of those send closed nonverbal signals - when the intended message is really about openness.
It is crucial to communicate congruently - that is, to align your body to support (instead of sabotage) an intended message. Mixed signals have a negative effect on performance and make it almost impossible to build relationships of trust. Whenever your nonverbal signals contradict your words, the people you are addressing -- employees, customers, voters -- become confused.
And, if forced to choose, they will discount your words and believe what your body said.
Tip Four: Remember - you are never "off camera"
When the second debate was over, and their wives were on stage, Senator McCain tapped his rival on the back. Senator Obama turned around to offer his hand, but it was not reciprocated. McCain, instead, pointed to his wife, Cindy - an action that many viewers took for a nonverbal brush-off.As a leader, you are always communicating. People are unrelenting leader-watchers, and your "off-record" behaviors are being closely monitored. In the words of one savvy executive, "What I do in the hallway is more powerful than anything I say in the meeting room."
So there you are -- five body-language tips that can play a positive role in your professional communication. Even if you never find yourself in the midst of a presidential debate.
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book and program topic is THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE - Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information, contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, email: CGoman@CKG.com, or through her websites: http://www.CKG.com and http://www.NonverbalAdvantage.com.
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