Many professionals often underestimate the importance of nonverbal communication. Most people plan what they’re going to say in meetings, but they completely ignore their body language—which is often half the message.
Studies have shown that 60 percent of our communication is nonverbal. When you’re not thinking of optimizing your body language, you are only using 40 percent of your communication ability.
Imagine how much more effective your next pitch or meeting with your boss could be if only you have your nonverbal communication a little attention. These seven tips can help you avoid that common mistake so you can use your body language to gain an advantage in your career.
1. Don’t Underestimate the Power of the Hands
Our hands speak volumes about who we are. Research has found that our brain pays attention to hands more than any other body part because we have evolved to look at them as a safety mechanism to make sure people won’t attack us. In fact, our brains have trouble trusting someone when we can’t see their hands.
Whenever you have meetings, keep your hands above the table. Your trust ratings will increase and you’ll be able to utilize a crucial tool for delivering messages and conveying attitude.
Additionally, a study by Colgate University found that using hand gestures makes people listen to you more carefully. However, that doesn’t mean you can just wave your hands wildly to make your point. Appropriate hand speaking space is from the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist. If you go outside this box, it’s seen as distracting and out of control.
To learn how to use hand gestures, watch speeches and TED talks to observe how those speakers use hand gestures to explain their message. Then you can practice using those gestures while preparing for your next presentation or event. Here is a list of 20 powerful hand gestures to get you started.
2. Trip Nod to Show You’re Engaged
Dale Carnegie, the master of winning friends and influencing people, advised his students to show they are interested in the people they speak with. One way you can do this nonverbally is to use the triple head nod. Three quick, small nods in a row is the nonverbal sign for “tell me more” or “I hear you, explain.” It is a great way to show that you are interested and engaged, and will encourage people to open up to you.
3. Stop Using Nervous Cues
Learn to stop displaying nervous body language so you don’t risk appearing anxious or incompetent. The most common behaviors are:
- Wringing hands
- Touching the suprasternal notch (the indent at the base of your neck)
- Cracking knuckles
- Rubbing arms
- Biting one’s lips
Sometimes it can be hard to identify what your nervous cues are—you’re most likely doing them without thinking. Ask a friend or colleague to tell you if they notice if you’re displaying any of the above behaviors. Once you know what they are, you can take actions to stop them. For example, if your cue involves your hands, go into stressful situations with your hands in a safe place, like at your sides while standing or one over the other on top of the desk while sitting. Then, focus on keeping them there unless you need to use them.
4. Mirror Other People
A study cited in the Harvard Business Review discovered that professionals who mimic clients’ speech and body language have more positive interactions and are more successful overall than those who don’t.
There are several ways you can go about mirroring people:
- Mimic their cadence: If you’re a fast-talker like I am, slowing down your speech to match the person you’re talking to helps put you on the same level.
- Adopt their stance: Hold your body in a similar way as they do.
- Match their demeanor: If the person you’re talking with is behaving formally, you need to as well or they’ll think you’re not taking the conversation seriously. Likewise, if they’re being more casual, you don’t want come across as too stiff or cold.
Of course, only mirror positive behaviors. Copying someone’s closed off body language or negative tone will only increase the tension between you.
5. Reduce Your Stress Levels
The moment you begin to feel stress, your cortisol levels are pumping, which exacerbates feelings of anxiety. Here’s how to use body language to relax:
- Roll your shoulders back and down your spine
- Aim your chest and forehead up towards the sun
- Place your feet firmly on the ground shoulder-width apart
- Relax your arms at your side
These are the characteristics of strong body language. The more space you take up and the more relaxed your muscles, the less cortisol you will produce, which will lessen your feelings of stress.
6. Smile (At the Right Time)
A lot of professional advice says that people should smile more often, but this is not always a good idea. Many studies have shown that people in positions of power actually don’t smile much, but instead, they smile at the right time. You want to smile when you first greet a person and shake their hand, when you talk about subjects you are passionate about, and when saying goodbye.
Smiling too much because you are nervous or trying to build rapport actually does the opposite; it makes you look less smart, not more friendly.
7. Sit At an Angle
How you sit affects behavior more than you would think. Studies show that when our bodies are positioned directly opposing someone else, our brains follow suit and perceives the other person to be more antagonistic. When talking to colleagues and superiors, it is best to sit or stand at a slight angle. This is much less threatening and lowers the heart rate of both participants.
Vanessa Van Edwards is an author and behavioral investigator who speaks and consults on human behavior hacks, body language and people skills at ScienceofPeople.com. She also teaches a Udemy course on “Body Language for Entrepreneurs.”