Thursday, April 03, 2008

Unspoken Communication

What book am I reading? Harvey Mackays Pushing the Envelope. Actually, I'm re-reading it, since it's been 5 or more years since I read it the first time.

I also get Harvey's e-mail newsletter. Here's his latest:

Actions speak louder than words

Body language is an important part of communication—it can constitute 50 percent or more of our message. If you wish to communicate well, then it makes sense to understand how you can (and cannot) use your body to say what you mean.

Hard to believe? Mute your television sometime and see how easy it is to figure out what's going on. Rent an old silent movie. Sometimes the subtitles belie the real story! Play poker with a novice if you want to learn how important body language is.

Does that mean we can just stop talking? Of course not.

But consider this: according to the Houston Chronicle, verbal content in a speech accounts for 7 percent of communications impact. Voice tone is responsible for 37 percent. Body language—believe it or not—has a 56 percent effect.

The ability to read between people's words is a skill that you'll need for the rest of your life. Even when you're silent, your body is sending signals about your mood and inner thoughts.

Body language is a hot topic on the news right now, due to the interest in the presidential campaign. So I decided to check in on the current research. Experts are analyzing every move the political candidates make, from shoulder shrugs to blinking. Hand movements, posture, even the tilt of the head are dead giveaways for the underlying message.

John Gottman, relationship expert and author of The Relationship Cure, says, "An open posture—in which you sit with your arms relaxed, your legs slightly apart, and your body tilted a little forward toward your conversation partner—gives the message that you respect this person and you want to offer your full attention. Adopt this position and you communicate that you're open to influence; you're available for interaction."

On the other hand, crossing of the arms seems to be a worldwide body language symbol of defensiveness, according to communication and negotiation experts Gerard Nierenberg and Henry Calero in How to Read a Person Like a Book. Often, when people cross their arms during a conversation it can indicate that they have withdrawn from communicating and are locked into their position. While you can't always assume that someone's body language indicates exactly what he or she is thinking, you can use it as a signal to pay attention to your own communication.

When you are engaged in conversation with someone and they cross their arms, do a mental checklist. Are you communicating in ways that are causing the person to shut down or feel defensive? Be honest with yourself, and do what you can to get the person to relax and open up again. Your goal should be to get the person communicating with you again. Think of the times when you have crossed your arms. When did you do it? Did it mean anything?

To gain the trust of a customer or co-worker, body language expert Robert C. Brenner offers the following advice to help ensure that your body and your mouth are saying the same things:

  • Shake on it. When extending your hand to shake, keep your palm facing upward, suggesting honesty and sincerity.
  • Keep your hands where they can be seen. Shoving your hands into your pockets makes you look secretive and suggests hidden agendas.
  • Here's the steeple. Pressing the fingertips of one hand against the other (steepling) conveys confidence.

The rules are a little different when working abroad or dealing with visitors from overseas. It pays to know a bit about how they interpret everyday sign language.

Roger Axtell, author of Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World, gives this example. The "OK" sign (thumb and forefinger forming a circle with the other three fingers extended) you flash to a colleague to show approval means different things around the globe. A Frenchman could interpret it to mean that you think he's a complete zero, while a Japanese guest might think that you're asking for money. Worst of all, a colleague from Latin America might think you're calling him a part of the anatomy that is generally considered insulting. (Richard Nixon once set off an international event by flashing this sign on a trip to South America). So be careful not only of what you say, but also of what you do.

Mackay's Moral: If you want to get a leg up, learn how to use effective body language.

Miss a column? The last three weeks of Harvey's columns are always archived online.

More information and learning tools can be found online at

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