Body Language: mind what you say!

Posted & filed under Blog, Communication Skills Coaching.

Have you ever had the feeling that the person you are listening to is hiding something?

Or perhaps they seem to be trying a little too hard to portray themselves in a certain way, which makes you question their integrity? In any spoken message, there are three elements of communication: the verbal (word choice, vocal (tone, pitch, pace, etc.) and visual (body language).

The Visual Image

It is widely accepted that out of those three, the visual image plays the most important role in helping the listener decipher the truth of the message. Body language can be divided into two categories: the conscious (i.e. the image that someone is choosing to portray) and the unconscious (i.e. the inner thoughts and emotions that ‘leak’ out without the speaker realising). Two of our current world leaders are excellent examples of both of these; Donald Trump is an expert in the former and Theresa May demonstrates a good deal of the latter.

Donald Trump consciously portrays a visual image of power and dominance. He raises his status by taking up as much space and time as possible. He stands straight, pushes his chest out and shoulders back, and walks slowly. He dominates other peoples’ personal space by standing too close and slapping them on the back. His handshakes have become a global source of comedy; he pulls or pushes the other ‘shaker’ around, shakes for too long and performs an array of two-handed shakes to signify dominance and control. He also deliberately uses hand gestures that give him power, for example the erect index finger, which says “don’t interrupt – this is my time to speak”. Even when Trump smiles, he seeks to avoid any impression of being submissive by keeping his lips pursed together. Almost everything he does physically is a conscious attempt to exert his power and control.

As a contrast, Theresa May unconsciously demonstrates her inner emotions through her body language. When she first took the role of Prime Minister, her posture was upright and strong. However, latterly, she has become more stooped, as if the weight of her responsibilities is resting on her shoulders. When she talks about challenging subjects, her shoulders rise up towards her ears in a tortoise-like fashion, as she seemingly attempts to protect her neck. Her upper body tension often causes her facial muscles to become stiff and rigid. This has a dramatic effect on her voice, reducing its variety and range.

So what can we learn from these world leaders and their body language?

I’d suggest that the key is in raising our own awareness; noticing those moments, both in ourselves and others, when our inner emotions may be visible and adjusting ourselves accordingly. It is also worth observing when someone may be consciously trying to portray a certain image and, perhaps, questioning their motivation. And finally, to be on the safe side, stick to a one-handed handshake!

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