78. Body language

There is a lot more to communication than the words we speak. There are other things such as tone of voice, speed of speech, eye contact, head position, facial expression, hand gestures, level of attention, how you are standing, body angle, how you move your arms and hands, how you sit and how you cross your legs.

Body language is the unspoken element of communication that reveals true feelings and emotions. While people usually give some thought to the words they speak many don’t give any thought to their body language.

It’s important to be aware of your own body language because you can use it (in a sincere and authentic way) to reinforce what you are saying. Also, people can become confused if your words are saying one thing but your body language is saying something else.

By being aware of your own body language and controlling you can improve your communication. You can use body language in a positive way to add strength to your verbal messages. By making sure your body language is in sync with what you are saying you can stand out from many other people.

By being aware of the other person’s body language you can get a sense of what they are thinking and/or feeling. You can pick up on unspoken issues or negative feelings. If you can read the other person’s body language you can decide if it is aligned with what they are saying. You can use their body language to get a sense of their true feelings and sometimes if they are speaking truthfully or not.

Examples of positive body language are, the relaxed facial expression that breaks out into a genuine smile – with mouth upturned and eyes wrinkled. It can be a tilt of the head that shows you’re listening, sitting, or standing upright to convey interest, or directing attention with hand gestures.

Avoid a defensive, arms-crossed posture, or restlessly tapping your feet. Imagine you say to a team member that your door is always open to them but when you say this your arms are crossed across your chest, with your body turned away from them and your eyes are downcast, maintain little contact and you keep glancing at your phone. What you are saying is at odds with your body language. The team member is unlikely to take you up on your open-door policy.

When you sit alongside a person, if you cross your legs, choose your top leg so it is pointing to the person and not away from the person. If you point your leg away from the person it could be interpreted that you don’t like them.

Being aware of these signs can help you adjust what you say – and how you say it. That way, you can make the other person feel more at ease.

When delivering a presentation, or collaborating in a group, you want the people around you to be fully engaged. Here are some clear indicators that they may be bored by what you’re saying:

Sitting slumped, with heads downcast.

Gazing at something else, or into space.

Fidgeting, picking at clothes, or fiddling with pens and phones.

Writing or doodling.

You can re-engage people by asking them a direct question, or by inviting them to contribute an idea. Lean slightly forward while you speak. This suggests that you’re taking them into your confidence and will help to regain their attention.

When you can ‘read’ signs like these, you can understand the complete message of what someone is telling you. You’ll be more aware of people’s reactions to what you say and do. And you’ll be able to adjust your body language to appear more positive, engaging, and approachable. Make a good impression:

Have an open posture.

Be relaxed, but don’t slouch!

Sit or stand upright and place your hands by your sides.

Don’t put one or both hands in your pocket and don’t play with loose change, keys, or a pen.

Avoid standing with your hands on your hips, as this can communicate aggression or a desire to dominate.

Avoid touching your face. If you do while answering questions, it can be seen as a sign of dishonesty. While this isn’t always the case, you should still avoid fiddling with your hair or scratching your nose, so that you convey trustworthiness.

During history and symptom taking, listen to the answers the person is giving you and look at them. When you note the information in the clinical records, tell them that is what you are doing. Face them directly, lean in and nod occasionally. When you summarise your findings do the same. When delivering bad news have an appropriate expression on your face. Never give the impression that the patient has done or said something wrong. Never give the impression that you are in a rush or in a bad mood.

 Be careful when speaking with people from different cultures. Positive gestures in one country can be negative in others. Avoid making assumptions! If you’re getting mixed signs from someone, ask them what they’re thinking. Interpreting body language should be a complement to talking and listening attentively, not a replacement for it.

Positive body language supports your points, helps you convey ideas more clearly, and avoids sending mixed messages. It can help you to engage people, mask any presentation nerves, and project confidence when you speak in public. Body language can also help you stay calm in situations where emotions run high, such as a negotiation or performance review, or interview.

Taking care of your body language and will help you stand out from the masses and impress your colleagues, patients, and loved ones without much extra effort.