When Shakira sang that her hips don’t lie, she wasn’t kidding. But the same could be said about her arms, shoulders, and face, too. That’s because we all send messages through our posture, gestures, and facial expressions, but we often don’t know we’re doing it.
“Most of the time our body language is unconscious, therefore it’s inadvertent,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others and Maximizing Your Personal Impact (Harvard Business Review Press; 2014). “While we’re unaware, we’re not invisible. Leaders who don’t want to leave this communication to chance should take control.”
Morgan says when we interact with others we’re having two conversations at once: verbal and nonverbal. When the two are aligned, the words become the centerpiece because the body language supports it. But when the two are sending different messages, it’s body language that’s more believable.
“There is real power of becoming aware and knowing how you show up,” says Morgan, founder of Public Words, a communication and speech coaching firm. He suggests keeping a body-language diary to record your physical presence and emotional attitude, paying attention to the changes as well as when they’re happening.
“Several times a day freeze in place and act as if you were looking at body from outside,” suggests Morgan. “Take note of what you ‘see.’ The point of a diary is to force yourself to become aware of what you’re doing throughout day.”
For example, is your posture slumped? Tense? Eager? Relaxed? What is your basic body positioning? Are your arms at your sides? Crossed? Or resting? When you stand, do you shrink into a corner or fill the space? A body-language diary will reveal the messages you’re sending to the world, as well as how certain situations affect you.
We all have a habitual posture that carries us through the day, but sometimes we’re sending messages because of something that happened in our past. Morgan shares the example of a utility industry executive who’d been promoted to senior vice president. He was an excellent employee for 25 years, but he was about to be fired because his boss felt he wasn’t performing well in his new role.
“He’d been promoted because he was cool in crisis, but his unemotional nature was now leaving employees cold,” says Morgan. “He came to me asking the question, ‘How do I become emotional?’”
Morgan says he noticed the man sat in the corner of the conference room. “Most executives have a normal healthy ego and sit in the middle,” says Morgan. “His body language demonstrated many things; he was hunched over and had little eye contact. It looked like he wanted to be invisible, but he had willingly taken on a public role.”
Morgan talked to the executive about the paradox of his body language and intention, and discovered that the man had been bullied when he was in middle and high school. He had learned to be invisible to escape the tormenting.
“We carry around our life history in our posture,” says Morgan. “In order for him to step into his new role, he has to unlearn what had worked for him in the past. He had to take control of those memories and turn them into positive ones.”
The messages we send from our posture can also be formed from our daily activity. Morgan says many of us tend to sit with our heads pitched forward because we’re working on computers or holding electronic devices. When we stand up, however, we stay hunched over.
“This posture can send a signal that you’re deep in thought or elsewhere,” says Morgan. “It also sends a signal of unhappiness, subordination, and self-doubt. But your intention could be something very different.”
It’s possible to override your habitual posture as you become more aware of what you’re doing.
While body language communicates information to others, it can also provide you with information about how you feel in different roles. Morgan says most of us will discover our posture changes based on with whom you’re working, such as a boss, employee, or colleague. These clues can be used to better understand how we feel about work, as well as those around us.
For example, check in with yourself as you go into a meeting. Are you preparing for battle, or are you in eager anticipation? Tension tends to gather in the same place, such as the stomach, shoulders, forehead, or face, but it can be different from person to person.
“You might be in denial about situations, but your body is wise,” says Morgan. “If you learn a particular meeting, colleague, or setting causes tension, you can think about that and decide what you want to do about it.”
Morgan says a body-language diary is a valuable tool for success: “If you want to achieve at a high level, a diary will provide you with important information,” he says. “What you learn can lead you to be enormously more successful and powerful.”