Managing your non-verbal signals and reading other people’s is an integral part of the give and take of exchanging information.
At the same time, rigidly sticking to all the ‘rules’ about body language can be counter-productive.
With verbal language, we tend to adjust automatically. You’ll find that you speak in different ways in different circumstances — think about the words and tone you use when talking to an old friend, a new friend, your boss, your kids, your kids’ teachers, how you talk when you are learning or teaching a new computer system, or when you are negotiating an agreement, and so on.
With body language, we tend to be more careful, perhaps because we need to control our instinctive behaviour.
You know it’s not a good thing to let your hands fly into fists when someone is annoying you, so you teach yourself to make less aggressive gestures. You make yourself engage in eye contact, even though you feel like making yourself invisible.
The trouble is that we can let our knowledge of the ‘rules’ get in the way. We can become self-conscious and inhibited about our non-verbal communication, and let theory overcome our natural instinct to sit or gesture in a way which is actually fine.
As with so much in communication, it all depends on the context.
Cross your legs
It is true that this gesture may be interpreted as closed or defensive. But not always, and not in every situation.
If you find that this way of sitting is natural and comfortable, there may be no need to adjust, even in formal situations. In fact, it’s much better to go with it than to suddenly remember and start shifting about.
If your posture, gestures and facial expressions give the impression of openness and engagement, a crossed leg is unlikely to send a contradictory message.
This is an informal way of sitting, so in certain situations you might want to control your instinct.
And if you are in a situation where you instinctively want to cross your legs and cross your arms tight across your body — whoa, what’s going on? Are you feeling threatened? Invaded? Uncomfortable? Unwind your limbs, and identify what your body is telling you!
Cross your arms
Folded arms — defensive! Yeah, we know. It’s a nervous, negative gesture which indicates low power.
But what about when you are chatting comfortably, or involved in an interesting discussion?
Leaning forward with your arms loosely folded looks good to me, particularly if the other person has a similar pose.
When you want to psych yourself up to feel determined, folding your arms can help. Try folding them tight across your body, and grip hard.
This action can help you to feel like sticking with a problem and not letting it beat you.
If you really need to access a power position, stand with your arms folded high up across your chest. Keep them away from your torso. Make sure your head is high. Keep your feet apart.
This is a real ‘they shall not pass’ position and you probably won’t use it often. But it’s nice to know it’s there.
Stand with your hands on your hips
This pose falls into the ‘aggressive’ ballpark, unless of course you are channelling that flirty hand-on-hip pose beloved of movie stars, in which case you probably don’t need any help from us in the body language department. But this look often signifies irritation, impatience, challenge.
However, you can use this position to increase your confidence. When you want to feel and come across as powerful and in control, and when you want to minimise your inner insecurity, try this:
Get a space when you can be alone and assume a power pose. Put your hands on your hips in the most kick-ass way you can muster. Take up as much room as you can. Feel yourself filling the space, even if it is that tiny cubicle you’ve commandeered. Keep your legs apart and your head level. Hold this pose for a couple of minutes.
Harness the feeling of power that surges through you, get out of there and make some waves!
Make your muscles tense
What’s this? We all know that tense muscles are linked with stress and discomfort. But sometimes you need to get into the stress response to heighten your willpower and enable you to face challenge.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to do it for long periods, but tensing your muscles can give you the boost you need to get through something unpleasant.
Fake a feeling
Effective communicators show congruence between verbal and non-verbal communication. There is no uncomfortable or misleading contradiction between what their body language suggests and what they actually say.
But you can use ‘fake’ body language to get yourself out of a state of mind. Just as the song says, ‘smile, though your heart is breaking’. If you make yourself smile when you are feeling low, or doing something difficult, you will feel less low and less stressed.
It is said that smiling helps you to achieve more results when you are working out. That’s nice to know for those of us who get through workouts only by imagining the refreshing G&T that awaits.
My book, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want, explains how women can discover the secrets of assertiveness in order to live happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives.
The book shows how assertive behaviour can bring about the best results in every aspect of your life — helping you achieve both your career and personal goals.
The Smart Girl’s Guide to Getting What You Want is available as a print book at all good bookshops and as an ebook at Amazon worldwide.
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