I’m finishing out the year with a back-to-basics 5-post review of the fundamentals of body language. In this era of #metoo, it’s incumbent upon all of us to be aware of our body language — what we’re projecting, what other people are receiving — our intention, in short. If you were thinking of making 2018 the year you finally got conscious of your unconscious behavior, now is the time to review what’s going on and what’s at stake. Enjoy!
What about the rest of body language? What’s important, what are the basics, how should you think about it in the context of traditional, normal, old-fashioned face-to-face communication with no recourse to a mobile phone?
The question I get asked most often about body language is, “What do I do with my hands?”
That’s because hands are such an expressive part of the face-to-face conversation. The first question our unconscious minds ask of each other when we meet someone is “friend or foe?” For obvious reasons, we really care whether or not the person in front of us is coming in for a hug or a punch.
In fact, when I did some work with a team of really brave, really patriotic Special Ops soldiers who were getting ready to deploy to an undisclosed (to me) location, they had an absolutely fascinating version of that question to ask. They said, “how do we tell if the people we’re going to meet are offering us coffee to start a conversation or to distract us while they pull AK-47s out of somewhere and shoot us?
Coffee or death? I loved it. Our basic communications question couldn’t be stated more clearly or viscerally.
How do you tell the difference between death and a cup of coffee?
And the answer I gave them had to do with the tensing of major muscle groups or the muscles of the arm and hand. If the former, then they needed to duck. If the latter, they could relax, smile, and ask for two sugars.
If you wish to signal the same kind of friendliness, then keep your gestures open. Don’t fold your hands in front of your chest, or crotch, or put them behind your back. All of these are defensive gestures and will not inspire trust. Keep your gestures open and reaching toward the others in the room.
What’s next? What else should you be worrying about?
The voice. I mean the tone of voice, its pitch, and everything else you do with it. The voice is an oft-neglected part of body language. And yet it is a key part of the communications system we humans use (when we’re not shut down in the virtual world) to ascertain identity, intent, authority, affection, leadership, competency, interest, stress, comfort, sex appeal, and many other things.
Let’s look at the basics. Voices need both resonance and presence. Resonance is the quality of the voice that makes it pleasant to listen to, and it’s created by good breathing and support of the air in the lungs. Basically, you need to take air into your belly, by expanding it, not into your shoulders by lifting them up, which is the way most people breathe. That actually makes your lung capacity smaller and gives you less resonance. Instead, take the air in (your belly should expand out) and then tense the diaphragmatic muscles below your rib cage to hold the air. Let it trickle out as you speak, and you’ll experience good resonance.
A strong voice requires breath, resonance, and presence
If you breathe properly, your voice should stay strong and clear throughout a day of talking. If you’re one of those whose voice gets tired, or hoarse, or weak, then you’re not breathing and supporting properly.
Presence is the opposite quality — it’s the timbre of the voice that allows it to be heard. Basically, you need to have a little bit of your voice coming from the nasal area. That creates presence. Put your fingers on either side of your nose and relax your mouth. Now, make a noise like a cow. Moo. . . moo. . . . If you can feel vibration in the nasal passages, that’s presence. Too much presence and you sound like a dentist’s drill and no one wants to listen to you. Just the right amount and you will be heard.
After that, voices need what I call the authoritative arc. Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr speaking. His voice rises up in the middle of the sentence, and then comes down toward the end, almost as if he were singing. That’s authoritative. Too many people today say everything as if it were a question? They let their voices rise in pitch at the end of the sentence? That confuses people? Because we lose the semantic difference between a question and a statement? Don’t do it!
After that, you need variety in your voice. Loud and soft, fast and slow, rising and falling in pitch, dramatic pauses — the voice is an amazing instrument for meaning, persuasion, and emotion. Don’t neglect it.
Next time, your posture matters!