By Jennifer Lazarow
What does a confident, competent businessperson look like? Hint: they know how to use non-verbal signals to their advantage.
What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, philosopher and poet
Your colleague storms into your shared workspace, slams her folder onto her desk, drops into her chair with an audible sigh and groans.
You ask her what’s wrong, and she replies, “Nothing! Everything’s just fine.”
What do you do?
A) Listen to her words, take them at face value and return to your work.
B) Decide that your coworker really is upset about something and decide to cautiously talk to her and delve further.
If you chose option B—congratulations!
But, why didn’t you believe your coworker’s words?
Actions speak louder than words
Whether you consciously realized it or not, your brain could tell that your coworker’s words didn’t match her nonverbal signals. Most of the time, we send complementary messages; our words, tone of voice and body language are working together to send a cohesive message.
However, research shows that, if our messages are not complementary (as in the opening example with your coworker), then we disregard a person’s words and instead choose our “meaning” from the person’s nonverbal communication.
Physical characteristics such as posture, gestures, facial expressions and eye contact account for more than 50% of our communication. Vocal characteristics, which include tone, pitch, rate and volume, are a close second in providing cues for meaning, while actual words we speak contribute as little as 7% to our understanding when we send a message that is not complementary.
So, how can this help us be better communicators at work?
By remembering the importance of nonverbal communication, you can become more attuned to the messages others are sending. True listening means that you listen to the other person’s words and that you also watch for cues in their body language and listen for nuances in their voice. We must expend energy and focus to be effective listeners.
That means looking up from your laptop or phone when someone comes into your workspace and starts speaking to you. And when working remotely, make eye contact and show attentive listening behaviors even when you aren’t speaking. If the camera is off, then try to be more expressive with your voice and listen carefully when others are speaking.
Make your nonverbal communication work for you
In addition to becoming a better listener, understanding the power of nonverbal language can also help you consciously choose to communicate in ways that may help your career, such as in a conflict situation or when asking for a raise. Your goal is to send a complementary message; make your words, actions and voice align to form a cohesive, consistent message.
Think of the last time you experienced a conflict at work, either with a coworker or a client. What were your nonverbal responses? Did you become quiet, lower your eyes and your head to avoid looking at the other person and hunch your shoulders? Maybe you crossed one or more of your arms over your chest? All of these “turtling” actions are signs of discomfort and withdrawal, which might be interpreted as weakness, disinterest or even guilt.
Alternatively, in the midst of a conflict do you maintain strong eye contact with the other person, feel your jaw drawing tight, hear your voice getting harder and louder, puff up your chest? Perhaps you find yourself clenching your hands or whatever you are holding? These actions could be interpreted as aggressive, stubborn or defensive.
Regardless of what the other person is doing, what type of presence would you like to project during a conflict? Now, what does someone with that type of presence act like and sound like? If your goal is to appear assertive, confident and open without being combative, then try this:
- Maintain comfortable eye contact with the other person
- Turn your body toward them
- Try to keep your voice steady and at a conversational volume when you speak
- Keep your hands open and relaxed
- Avoid sending argumentative signals, such as shaking your head “no,” pursing your lips or rolling your eyes
You’ll likely be feeling stressed, so remember to take slow, deep breaths to help calm your body’s fight-or-flight reflexes. It’s not easy but monitoring your nonverbal behavior in a conflict conveys that you’re willing to listen and engage in a cooperative manner, rather than shutting down or appearing obstinate. It can also bolster your professional image, bridge differences with others and build trust.
Monitoring nonverbal communication is also essential when making a proactive career move such as interviewing, making a pitch or asking for a raise.
What does a confident, competent person look and sound like? Hold that image in your mind. Your poise and voice should appear confident, but not obnoxious; you recognize your strengths, skills (and weaknesses) and the value you bring to the team. To communicate that awareness and confidence:
- Keep your shoulders straight and back, with your chest turned toward the other person
- Maintain comfortable eye contact (if the eyes are too intimidating, look at the forehead just above the eyes)
- Avoid fidgeting with your hands or pen, or self-soothing behaviors such as touching your neck or your hair
- Keep your feet turned toward the other person. Avoid jiggling your leg, rubbing your hands on your thighs or swaying (if you are standing)
- Keep your voice strong, clearly enunciate and fully support all the words in your sentences—avoid the tendency to get quieter, mumble or close your throat toward the end of sentences
Don’t fry your chances
Closing your throat while speaking makes your words sound lower pitched and creaky, which is called vocal fry. (For an example of vocal fry, listen to the end of Kim Kardashian’s sentences.) Vocal fry is a trait that has become widespread in young people recently, but research shows that seasoned professionals rate vocal fry voices as less competent, less confident and less desirable to hire. Try recording your voice to see if you have this habit.
Fake it until you make it
Our actions affect our mental state and vice versa. By visualizing the image you want to project through your nonverbal communication and consciously practicing those behaviors (such as posture, eye contact and vocal characteristics), those behaviors will become more natural and positively influence your attitude to the point where you genuinely do feel more relaxed and confident, even in stressful situations like a conflict or asking for a raise.
The goal is not to manipulate others’ perception of you, but to focus on improving yourself and eliminating any nonverbal behaviors that may be sending the wrong signal.
If you’d like to gain more confidence in your communication skills or enhance your leadership/professional skills, The Center for Professional Education offers several one- and two-day courses that provide a deeper dive into communication, leadership and management topics.
Jennifer Lazarow is a long-time instructor with The Center for Professional Education, teaching business management, leadership and communications courses. She also provides training and writing services through her company, Achieve It!
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