Businesspeople learn early in their careers the importance of a firm handshake and making eye contact when meeting other businesspeople for the first time. Both the handshake and eye contact are examples of how nonverbal communication contributes to first impressions.
Murray Johannsen, in an article titled “Nonverbal Communication,” appearing in Legacee online, describes the subtlety of handshakes: “The example from the American culture is the amount of pressure one exerts on the other person’s hand during a handshake. One puts a certain amount of pressure into the handshake, and it should be neither too much nor too little. Another aspect of this is, when grasping another’s hand, the web of your hand intersects the web of their hand.”
If a handshake can communicate so much, that’s indicative of the need to pay attention to all areas of nonverbal communication. The question then becomes: How do you improve your nonverbal communication skills as you listen to and speak with others?
Step 1: Watch yourself . . . and others. When communicating, focus on the use of your body. The goal is to increase the expressive nature of your body, when appropriate, without being overdramatic. Be aware that gestures are often more useful with groups, such as in meetings and presentations. If a person’s words fail to match his or her nonverbal cues, it‘s best to trust the nonverbal messages. Listen with your eyes. In most cases, the nonverbal message is more accurate.
Step 2: Maintain eye contact. Eye contact is crucial when speaking with anyone, particularly coworkers, superiors, or direct reports. It promotes trust and understanding. Try to increase eye contact when speaking with others, and see if they‘re making and maintaining eye contact with you. If someone avoids eye contact, you‘ll likely sense the person‘s discomfort or dishonesty. You can ease another‘s discomfort by asking questions that enhance communication.
Step 3: Work on your posture. Your mother emphasized the need to stand up straight and avoid slouching in your chair. As it turns out, Mom was giving you your first lesson in nonverbal communication. Posture is a nonverbal indicator of confidence level.
A gesture conveys a message by using one part of the body, whereas a postural shift involves the movement of the body as a whole. A closed posture (folded arms and crossed legs) indicates a closed personality and a lack of confidence. Open posture (arms spread in a relaxed manner) is a much more confident pose. Posture should also be in sync with conversations so you avoid sending mixed messages. When you’re sitting behind your desk or at a meeting table, sit up straight. Don’t slump; it conveys disinterest and inattention. Leaning back, or rocking back and forth in your chair, tells others you‘re bored. In contrast, leaning forward in your chair when listening to someone speak demonstrates active interest in both the person and conversation.
Step 4: Straighten your desk. A sloppy desk or office sends the message that you‘re disorganized and careless. Messy desks may be a symptom of a larger problem such as inefficiency, which stems from an inability to find files or other important papers. Disorganization creates stress and limits productivity. Instead of creating vertical piles on your desk, rely on to-do files that can be stored inside a drawer.
Step 5: Read your audience. If you’re making a presentation, be aware of your audience’s nonverbal communication. As your presentation progresses, watch for signs of slouching, yawning, or dozing off; this means you’ve lost their attention. If, on the other hand, the group is energized and interested, participants’ body language may convey that they want you to ask for their thoughts and input. Learning to read a group’s mood enhances your abilities as both a speaker and manager.
Step 6: Listen to your voice. Paralanguage, or paralinguistics, involves the various fluctuations in one’s voice, such as tone, pitch, rhythm, inflection, and volume. These cues can have a powerful effect on communication. A loud or very forceful tone, for example, may convey a stronger and more serious message, as compared to softer tones. Sarcasm can also cause problems in the workplace. A manager‘s sarcastic tone creates stress because his tone (joking) is meant to contradict his words (hurtful or biting).
Step 7: Question yourself. Throughout the day, monitor your progress. Ask yourself the following questions about your performance: How was I perceived at the meeting? Could I have done something differently? Were people really interested and paying attention to what I was saying? Did I listen well to others? As you answer these questions, your self-awareness will increase.
None of these six steps can be taken for granted. True, some people are more aware of slight distinctions of nonverbal communications than others, but everybody can learn to use the six steps and thereby make dramatic improvements in their ability to communicate effectively with others.
For more insights from Jeff Wolf, check out his book, Seven Disciplines of a Leader.
Using the right body language is essential for leaving a great first impression in the workplace. Use AMA's resources to build your verbal and nonverbal communication skills.