Weekly Reading: Why is Body Language so Important?

I am going to try a different approach to my regular Handpicked series. My intention with that series is to share what I have read or listened to in the past week, with a brief comment on why. However I found myself writing longer paragraphs, not a succinct useful curated post.

With that goal in mind I will keep the Handpicked posts shorter. Where I feel the urge to go into more detail on a book, article, or podcast, I will write a separate post.

Below is what would have appeared in this weeks Handpicked post in the ‘What I am reading’ section.

People Skills by Robert Bolton

I haven’t read a lot of this book this week. I made it through one chapter that covered body language.

The theme of this chapter is that we cannot NOT communicate via body language.

Whether or not we intend to our body is always saying something. Usually our feelings and emotions leak through.

I have been fascinated by body language for years and even read a couple of books on the topic back in 2002/3/4. For example I pay attention to where I sit in meeting rooms. If you sit opposite the person, across a table, that creates a barrier, whereas sitting at an angle adjacent to them is less so. It makes for a less confrontational conversation.

Robert Bolton does not go into the specifics of body language itself. This is a chapter about understanding how to listen to body language, not communicate with it. He wants the reader to grasp that the combination of the words, tone, gestures, and posture is all relevant. Any specific bodily action cannot be interpreted in isolation, it must be seen in context.

A person cannot not communicate. Though she may decide to stop talking, it is impossible for her to stop behaving, The behavior of a person—her facial expressions, posture, gestures, and other actions—provide an uninterrupted stream of information and a constant source of clues to the feelings she is experiencing.

On top of that he wants you the reader to recognise how useful body language is for understanding what a person is feeling.

The observation of body language is important to an effective listener because it communicates what is most important to the speaker. When a person is reluctant to put her feelings into words, or is unable to find the right phrases to describe her emotions, or has repressed her feelings to the extent that she is not consciously aware of her feelings—in each of these situations, the person’s nonverbals usually indicate the person’s true feelings. As Sigmund Freud said, “Self-betrayal oozes from all our pores.

He places a significant emphasis on feelings in this chapter. His reasoning is that, until you demonstrate you understand what the person is feeling, the conversation cannot move on.

Imagine you are dealing with an angry customer. You cannot reason with the customer until you have demonstrated empathy. Demonstrating to the customer that you get why they are angry goes a long way to calming them down. Once they move out of that angry state you can begin to resolve their issue with them.

Finally, the speaker will tend to doubt that you understand as much as you say you do. It is seldom helpful to tell another that you understand—what is needed is a demonstration that you do in fact have some degree of understanding of his feelings.

It is important to understand that you must demonstrate it. You cannot say you know how they feel, because you can never know exactly what they are feeling.

Robert Bolton provides the following tips worth considering:

This is usually less successful than attempts at verbal camouflage; the emotions usually “leak” through our efforts to regulate nonverbal expression. Several guidelines foster improved “reading” of body language:

  • Focus attention on the most helpful clues—facial expression, vocal expression, and posture, gestures and “actions.”
  • Read nonverbals in context.
  • Note discrepancies.
  • Be aware of your own feelings and bodily reactions.

The last point I want to leave you with is what I think of as congruence. How well do your words and your body language align?

We often sense when a persons words say one thing, but their body says another. When you are the one communicating you need to pay attention to your own body, and use it to communicate.

The point is that when there is a discrepancy between a person’s words and nonverbals (or between two aspects of body language), it is helpful to search for the meanings in each of the channels of communication

If you are the listener he stresses that we should pay attention to all the channels of communication. They are all relevant.

If a friend says they are OK, but their body is tense, you will probably recognise that. You might see that they are anxious. In this scenario you need to consider both the words and the body.

Why are they saying they are OK, and why do they look tense?

Both are correct on their own, form the speakers point of view, but taken together a completely different message emerges. This is what you want to reflect back. It is this message that will help you communicate effectively.

Thinking in terms of body language, and focusing on it, helps me keep quiet. Personally I find there is less inclination to interject and say your bit.

None of this is easy of course.

I don’t do a lot of this.

I have on occasion, and I like to people watch, so do in some scenarios. I can definitely pay more attention to it at home and at work.

What types of body language do you regularly pay attention to?