Sometimes when I work with clients, there’s a moment when the full implications of what I’m asking from them in terms of intentionality become clear. Wait, you mean that I’m responsible for my body language from the moment I walk out on stage until the end of the presentation? Or, you mean I have to be conscious of my body language for the entire meeting?

The shocked look in their eyes reflects both the scope of the immediate task and the realization that there are a potentially endless number of such presentations and meetings stretching ahead as far as the mind’s eye can see.

That’s the thing about intentionality – you have to show up every time. That’s, in fact, what intentionality means.

So why bother? Why do all that work? Why not leave it to chance? It’s much easier.

Because we all interpret body language unconsciously in terms of intent all the time. We always already assume that the body language we see in others is meaningful and – worse – related to us and our presence. We have to, because of the way our brains are constructed.

You can’t stop the merry-go-round of intentionality from working – both yours and everyone else’s.

The reading of nonverbal communications happens in the limbic brain, and it happens faster than conscious thought. That system evolved to keep us alive in ancient times when quick reaction time was a matter of life and death. It remains true today, even though it is much less often a life-and-death issue. Today, if the boss stalks up the aisle past us, we immediately start guessing her state of mind. What’s up? Why is she angry? What did I do – or fail to do? And so on.

You can notice yourself doing this simply by cataloguing your thoughts when you meet someone at the office or in the supermarket. Notice how quickly your mind starts developing scenarios involving the intent of the other person. It’s automatic and preconscious thought. Those scenarios are the result of what your brain has already logged as essential information about your environment and the others in it.

And here’s the point: we undertake all this unconscious interpretation regardless of whether anyone else intends it or not. You can’t stop it.

Now flip that on its head, and you’ll realize that the audience is attributing intentionality to you, whether you are intending anything or not. So not to take charge of your intentions is to leave your success or failure as a communicator to chance.

And in fact it’s worse than that, because if you don’t take charge of your body language you’ll most likely show up as nervous, or unhappy to be there – and neither one of those apparent intentions will serve you well.

Leadership communications means, in essence, persuasion. That’s what leaders do, after all. They persuade people to work together and achieve more than they ever thought they could, reach apparently impossible goals, and put personal interest aside (at least temporarily) in favor of some larger group benefit. You simply can’t accomplish those things if you’re showing up with mis-matched messages and intentions. Passion and connection persuade – and you can’t be either passionate or connected – or persuade – if you’re not intentional.

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