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Body Language Secrets for Successful Leadership

leadership & impact mind & meaning Apr 29, 2020

For better or worse, business leaders are always on display. Did you know that you constantly send nonverbal messages that shape others’ opinions of you?

Successful leaders use non-verbal cues—such as facial expressions, posture, and hand gestures—to their advantage. Your nonverbal signals transmit a message to the people you are communicating with, whether in a one-on-one meeting or when you speak to groups. If you want people to trust and respect you, it’s important to be conscious of what your body language is saying.

For instance, I was debriefing a 360-degree assessment with one of my executive coaching clients, and he received feedback that he needs to improve his executive presence because he had a habit of slouching and swiveling in his seat at meetings. He was not even conscious of his own body language until he received that feedback.

“The body never lies.” – Martha Graham

New research shows that having the right balance of power and authority with warmth and empathy is essential. If your body language conveys too many power signals, you may appear cold and detached. However, if you project too much warmth, it may limit your ability to command other people’s attention.

Being mindful of your body language is important for two reasons. First, it can help you express to others that you are trustworthy and that you should be listened to. However, there is a second benefit to leveraging the power of your physiology: it can transform how you see yourself. According to psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, who gave a TED talk on body language, it’s possible to “fake it ’til you become it.” By choosing to take on a more powerful pose, you can not only feel more powerful, but you can actually become more powerful. Small tweaks in your body language can have a potentially big impact on how people view you—and how you view yourself. Your body language can help you embrace a more positive mindset, which impacts what you think, how you feel, the actions you take, and ultimately, your outcomes.

In addition to the tips I shared in a previous article regarding matching and mirroring, here are a few ideas to help you leverage the power of your physiology so that you can be healthier, happier, and an even better leader:


#1: Smile: It’s Good for You!

Smiling demonstrates confidence and warmth to others, which strengthens rapport and connection. However, did you know smiling is also really good for you? There has been a great deal of research about the physiological benefits of smiling. When you smile, it activates the reward center of your brain, which releases “feel-good” hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins into your body—thereby reducing stress and making you feel more relaxed. In this more relaxed state, you project an energy of being friendly and approachable. And, you are able to think more clearly and make even better decisions.

“Smile even if you don’t feel like it. Your body language helps determine your state of mind.” – Gitte Falkenberg

Studies show that the most effective smile is a genuine “growing smile”—a gradual smile that starts small but grows, such as when meeting new people or when a person enters a room. The key is to be authentic. When someone smiles more than expected given a situation, it may be perceived as weak and lead to a lack of trust.


#2: Make Appropriate Eye Contact

How do you feel when you speak with someone and they make an effort to maintain eye contact with you during the conversation? Chances are that you feel important and “heard.” On the other hand, how do you feel when you speak with someone and they glance down, sideways, or look at their watch? You may perceive that individual as being disrespectful, distracted, insincere, or impatient.

“When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Eye contact is one of the most important components of nonverbal communication. Your ability to sincerely look at others in the eye while speaking with them transmits energy and indicates interest, openness, and confidence. It elevates trust in the relationship. However, be mindful of the fact that too much eye contact may be perceived as aggressive. Trust your instincts and allow yourself to shift your gaze for a moment any time your eye contact feels uncomfortable.


#3: Strike a Powerful Pose

Your brain is hardwired to equate people’s power with the amount of space that they take up. When you stand up straight with your shoulders back in a “power position,” you maximize the amount of space you fill, and therefore project a greater degree of self-confidence and strength. You subconsciously tell people that you believe in your vision and that you are in control.

On the other hand, when a leader slouches or caves their shoulders, they become “smaller” by taking up less space. Therefore, they project less power and may be perceived as insecure or doubtful, which impacts their ability to influence their teams. Slouching may also be seen as a sign of disrespect. It communicates that you are not engaged in what the other person is saying.

“A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind.” – Morihei Ueshiba

The other advantage of taking a powerful pose is that it triggers a chemical reaction in your brain that actually makes you feel more empowered (through an increase in testosterone) and relaxed (through a decrease in cortisol). According to Amy Cuddy, just two minutes of power posing—standing tall, holding your arms in a “v” shape towards the sky, or standing with your hands on your hips and legs apart like Superman—can dramatically boost your confidence.

Before your next meeting or presentation, be conscious of the nonverbal signals that you send by the way that you use the space around you. Keep your posture upright, your shoulders back, and your head high. It will make others think that you are confident and in charge and, even more importantly, it will make you believe that as well!


#4: Develop a Firm Handshake

One of the fastest ways to establish rapport is by shaking hands. It creates an immediate impression because the sense of touch is one of the most powerful forms of nonverbal communication. In fact, studies show that it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to build the same amount of rapport as you can develop with a single handshake.

“Initiate a proper handshake and the whole world opens up for you.” – James D. Wilson

The key is to have palm-to-palm contact that feels firm but not too tight (and is accompanied by an appropriate amount of direct eye contact). A weak handshake or a sweaty hand can send the message that you feel nervous or insecure. On the opposite end, a handshake that is too strong (bone-crushing) may be perceived as aggressive. By practicing a firm handshake, you will signal that you are a person of integrity.


#5: Pause and Shift When Fidgeting

A few days ago, I was sitting at my kitchen island and doing some work, when my husband asked why my leg was bouncing up and down. I hadn’t even noticed that I was doing that. Although it may appear harmless to do things like twitching your knee, fiddling with your pen, looking at your phone, cracking your knuckles, doodling, or drumming your fingers on the table, this type of unconscious behavior can give the impression that you are nervous, distracted, insecure, or insincere.

The next time you catch yourself fidgeting, I invite you to pause, focus your attention on your breath, and gently fold your hands in your lap or do something known as “steepling”—clasping your hands and then touching your index fingers together in a steeple-like shape. Not only will this allow you to feel calm and in control, but it will also help you be more focused and demonstrate your interest.


#6: Use Appropriate Gestures

Have you ever listened to someone and intuitively sensed that something was off? If so, it may be because your subconscious mind sensed that their body language was not aligned with their words (or the tone of their words). For example, perhaps someone intended to convey a powerful message, but their eyes were looking down or they folded their arms across their chest.

When a person’s gestures are not congruent with their verbal messages, they may be perceived as uncertain or doubtful. On the other hand, when your gestures are congruent with your verbal messages, people are more likely to trust you and accept your suggestions.

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

As with all the other nonverbal cues, the key is to be authentic and match your non-verbal communication to your message and audience. For example, if you want to show up as authoritative, use expansive body language and bigger gestures. If you want to be perceived as down-to-earth and empathetic, consider using subtler gestures and taking up less physical space.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to using your body language to feel more empowered and communicate more effectively. Like any other skill, improving your nonverbal communication skills takes continual practice.

I challenge you to start by becoming more aware and in control of your body language. Ask yourself questions like, “How did I show up at the meeting?” and “How do I want to feel in this conversation?” Over time, you will become more conscious of the messages that you are sending to others, and you will adjust your behavior to feel more empowered and become an even better leader.

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