Body Language – a foreign language we all need to learn

Vincent Nichols an English Clergyman said, “We’re losing social skills, the human interaction skill, how to read a person’s mood, to read their body language, how to be patient until the moment is right to make or press a point. Too much exclusive use of electronic information dehumanises what is a very, very important part of community life and living together”.

As consultants, we are often ourselves in front of teams or individuals where we haven’t had time to learn all their quirks and traits. Therefore, an understanding of body language can help us read the situation and tailor our approach accordingly.

There are obvious signs that we all instinctively notice in others, such as a nod of the head, folded arms, sharp intakes of breath, along with positive and negative facial impressions. All of these give us information about how the other person is reacting to what we have just said or done. There is more we can learn from those we are dealing with; if we just know what we are looking for.

Throughout this learning process there will be an element of trial and error and occasionally we misread the signs. Just like learning French, where there are words that sound like English words but mean something totally different, in body language the context and environment can change the meaning of a gesture. For example, leaning back in a chair with your hands behind your head while at home is normally a sign of being relaxed, while in a meeting it could be a sign of arrogance/lack of interest.

To start learning and understanding the finer points of body language, you need to observe the behaviours of yourselves and others. Just look around the office or room you are in as you read this and think about what the people near you seem to be saying with their body, not their words!

Once you start to notice things, it’s time to decode them. That’s the hard bit! To do this takes time, practice and a bit of reading. Is it frustration, acceptance, boredom or thinking about a solution? Some things are conscious and others are unconscious; those that are unconscious are the ones that tell us what someone is truly feeling. Conscious actions are the ones that can be manipulated and therefore the ones that can be used to fool others.

Once you can decode the signals, you can decide how to adapt your approach to either engage the audience better, reiterate or reinforce a point to ensure your message comes across and is fully understood. Adapting is all about changing your behaviour to change the response you get.

This works just as well in sales and personal relationships as it does with consultants and clients. The desired outcome is one where the communities in which we live and work are more successful and in business we have the competitive edge to keep us one step ahead.