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The power of body language

In the 1960’s, the American psychologist Albert Mehrabian undertook vital research into non- verbal communication (non – verbal communication is often referred to as body language).

All living creatures – humans and animals – use body language to signal, without words, their intentions, their emotions, their state of mind. For example, in the animal world, dogs raise their hackles and show their teeth and cats arch their backs and fluff their tails to show aggression. Humans tense their muscles, scowl and adopt a fighting stance to send the same signal.

Of course, in the normal, daily business interactions the signals are usually much more subtle. But the signals are there, and if you accurately read and interpret them you will have a fairly good idea of what people are thinking and feeling, regardless of what they might be saying. In the same way, if you learn to manage your own body language, then you will send the kind of signals that would be most useful and helpful in each situation.

Mehrabian’s research showed that human communication depends upon three factors:

The words we speak

The tone of voice we use to speak the words

The silent, non – verbal body language which accompanies the words

His research showed that, when communicating, the impact of what we say, how we say it, and how we are saying it is as follows.

Impact of words 7%

Impact of tone of voice 38%

Impact of body language 55%

Most of the messages that you send are seen and sensed, rather than heard. What you say is less important than how you say it. Your non –verbal messages are most important of all.

How aware are you of the body language signals you send and receive during the course of normal conversation?

It is important to understand the interpretation of body is not an exact science. However, it is generally safe to say that most gestures and movements send fairly clear messages to someone who has a basic understanding of non verbal communications.

Noticing transactions is the key to success

When interpreting body language it is important to recognize that some people naturally frown, frown, fidget, fold their arms in front of them to form a barrier, and so on.

The key to recognizing what the non- verbal communication really means is to pay attentions to the transitions from one body language signal to another. For example:

If someone is listening to you, leaning forward, paying attention and nodding agreement and then makes the transition to leaning back, folding their arms, fidgeting and so on, it is safe to say they have either lost interest or begun to disagree with what you are saying.

If someone is gazing out of the window or shuffling papers while you are speaking and then makes a transition to sitting up straight or leaning forward, maintaining steady eye contact and so on, then it is safe to say that they have become interested in what you are saying.

If someone is maintaining cool, steady eye contact for most of the conversation and then makes the transition to looking away and being unable to meet your eyes, then it is safe to say that there is a problem…perhaps they are in total disagreement with you; perhaps they are not being as honest and truthful as they might; perhaps they feel that the conversation is going nowhere and is simply wasting their time.

If you pay attention to body action transactions and act on them – for example by:

Asking questions to identify the problem

Changing the topic of the conversation

Summarizing what has been said and agreed so far

Checking for understanding

Then you will be able to keep control of the situation and maintain effective communication.

The conventions of the body language – both business and personal – vary around the world. What is acceptable in one country may be considered impolite or inappropriate in another.

Body language

Positive non – verbal signals
  • Eye contact
  • Smiling
  • Relaxed posture and breathing
  • Nodding
  • Leaning forward

Negative non – verbal signals
  • Frowning or scowling
  • Fidgeting
  • Inability to maintain eye contact
  • Leg swinging, foot tapping, paper shuffling
  • Leaning back
  • Sighing
  • Rolling eyes

Next week: Effective feedback

Excerpts from The University of Leicester Diploma in Management – offered via Resource Development International (RDI) Jamaica (

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