What do I need to know about body language?

by Sam on January 19, 2010

One-Minute Answer: UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian discovered that words contain only 7% of the power that can be unleashed through face-to-face communication. Another 38% of our influence is attributed to voice, with body language accounting for a clear majority—55% of our conversational impact.


When I read his study back in the 70’s my immediate reaction was, “There’s no way that words account for only 7% of the impression we make on our listeners!” After four more decades of life experience I still say, “No way.” There’s no way words register that much force!


Consider this exercise that undergraduate students experienced in an Organizational Communication course at the University of Pittsburgh. Five of my male colleagues, invited into a class, sat in the front of the room saying nothing. They were intentionally differentiated in apparel, accessories, posture, facial characteristics, and body movement. Students were given a survey on which to rate how well each of the five men fit these descriptions: (1) easy to get to know; (2) intelligent; (3) assertive; (4) wealthy; (5) flexible; (6) moody; (7) reliable. Over 300 students effortlessly completed the survey over the years without anyone ever pushing back. Not one said, “You can’t expect me to make these judgments based only on appearances.”


People easily do the same thing to you. 



Five-Minute Answer: Become more mindful of your body language through the correct answers to these questions.


1.    Why do I get in trouble for the emails I send?  One of many possible reasons is that you’re exercising only 7% of your potential impact. Recipients of your message can’t read your face, your stance, and your gestures to understand what you really mean by the words they see on their screen.

2.    What’s the only part of my body I can’t lie with?  An Arabic proverb says, “The eyes are the portals to the soul.” Your eyes reveal whether you’re happy or heavyhearted, credible or crooked, swayed or skeptical, attentive or abstracted, and the list goes on.

3.    Why does a fake smile look that way?  Failing to experience the emotion that would cause a smile keeps your eyes from smiling. The mouth is a lesser contributor to facial joy.

4.    Why do State Troopers wear reflective sun glasses?  Putting a visual shield between the two of you confines the writing of your speeding ticket to official business. We bond with others through eye contact—something an officer of the law wants to avoid, but something you often covet.

5.    Can I use my body to listen better?  Turn toward people when they talk to you and look them in the eyes. Lift your eyebrows slightly to open your face. If the other person is sitting, sit. If the other person is standing, stand.

6.    Can I use my body to sell better?  When I make sales calls, I’m careful that my body language is not noticeably incongruent with prospects. If they’re leaning forward I won’t lean back. If their legs aren’t crossed I won’t cross mine. If they’re sitting still I’m determined not to fidget. I do the research to make my dress consistent with theirs. I even adjust my handshake in mid grasp to their firmness.

7.    Can I use my body to keep people talking?  When others put you on the spot with their requests, their questions, or with their personal problems keep them talking. Find out what they really need before you offer your thoughts or a solution. Elevate your eyebrows a half-inch slight and sprout a half smile. You’ll be amazed at how this “open face” encourages the speaker to share at a deeper level.

8.    How can I become more persuasive in a meeting?  According to research the power of your ideas will rise about 75% if you stand up, walk to a flipchart or whiteboard, and write or draw your ideas as you speak. The combined impact of standing up and of visualizing your thoughts advances your position.

9.    How do mirrors mislead me?  Many years ago my little girl looked on as in preparation for work I straightened my tie in front of my wife’s dresser. As I primped she said, “Don’t bother Daddy. Our teacher told us that what you see in a mirror isn’t what other people see. It’s backwards.” She was right! Since none of us have perfectly symmetrical hair styles, faces, or body shapes (or tie knots), what we see isn’t what they get.

10.  What’s the most dangerous gesture?  It’s pointing at people. This is a demeaning, controlling, and attacking act of aggression. Instead, put all four digits together to emasculate the index finger. Gesture toward the person you’re singling out with an open palm.

11.  What handshake isolates me from others?  Your palm is a highly sensitive part of your body. When it touches the palm of another, a close physical bond results. When, instead, you stick out a cupped hand you distance yourself from those you greet.

12.  What does my office say?  When people enter your office (your car, or your home) they’re bombarded by messages beyond those radiating from you. While your desktop is certainly a message sender, two other variables compete for attention. One is how you arrange your furniture thereby controlling where they stand or sit as they converse with you. Another is what you hang on your walls thereby revealing your values.

13.  What does my clothing say?  Imagine what people really hear if they’re thinking any of these thoughts. “Who’s he trying to impress?” “She must not think much of herself dressed that way.” “Doesn’t he realize we do business casual?” “I wonder if she owns a can of shoe polish?” “Someone should get him an iron for his next birthday.” “Is she color blind?”

14.  Is body odor an element of body language?  Is heat an element of the sun? Men need to find a deodorant that really works. Women need to be sure that their cologne or perfume is not over bearing. Everyone needs to know if they should take action to control bad breath. Ask someone that you trust to be honest with you for feedback.

15.  Why do people fold their arms over their chest?  I have no idea. The classic interpretation is being closed to your ideas or feeling protective. Maybe so, but an arm-folder may also be cold, tired, or experiencing an angina attack. We cannot read body language with perfect accuracy in the absence of confirming cues. Besides, the insights above were not provided to teach you how to read others. Instead, they alert you to the shouts of your body that compete mightily with your words.

Enough Said:  What you are speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next week you’ll learn how the 38% component of communication (voice) enticed Tony Dorsett to win his Heisman Trophy at the University of Pittsburgh instead of at any one of the many football powerhouses that had hoped to land him.










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What are some things better not to say? | Ask Sam Deep
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Bryan 01.21.10 at 7:13 am

More great advice from Sam! I was just discussing this topic with the most important people in my life-my family. Often we turn to Sam as we strive for success and being the best versions of ourselves. Keep up the great work.

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