Understand body language in business

An annoyed man stands with his arms crossed

It's easy to underestimate the importance of body language. But we do so at our peril. Behavioural studies have shown that when we communicate, 7% of our meaning is conveyed by words used, 38% by tone of voice, and 55% by our body language. Aengus Collins reads the signs

With so much of our communication being perceived non-verbally, it's important to be aware of the signals you are sending out. When you meet and greet your customers, your body language sends signals that have a big impact. According to renowned expert Robert Phipps, the main problem with body language is that every intention of creating a good impression often disappears once we start talking to someone.

"Most people simply forget about their body language," says Phipps. "They remember at the outset, when walking up to someone and shaking hands. But about 90% of people have completely forgotten about their body language within three minutes.

"The reason is they're too busy talking. Speaking is a conscious activity, and as we devote mental energy to getting our words right, we forget to pay attention to what our body is doing."

That is when body-language bloopers can creep in. According to Phipps, the most important things to watch for are hand and arm movements.

"The hand is the body's mouthpiece," he says. "As we speak we gesture, and our hands give away the true meaning. For example, hand-to-face movements increase more than five-fold when someone's lying. It's as if the hand is trying to cover up the mouth to stop the lie getting out."

Learn to relax

But the key to getting your body language right, says Phipps, isn't so much learning which specific gestures come across well and which ones come across poorly. Good body language follows naturally when you're feeling relaxed and confident, so the most important thing you can do is learn to be more relaxed.

There are simple tips to help with this. When asked what the three most important elements of good body language are, Phipps focuses on breathing, posture and the position of the head.

"The first and most important thing is to try to keep your shoulders back and chest open, because this allows you to breathe more deeply and get more oxygen to your brain. Controlled breathing is the key to relaxation. Before going into a meeting, take five deep breaths, breathing in for five seconds, holding for three and breathing out for five. Doing this automatically makes you feel more relaxed.

"The second is to get your posture right. The easiest way to think of it is as if there was a little thread running along your spine and out through the top of your head. Just imagine someone gently lifting the string to straighten your body out. That's how you should be sitting or standing.

"And the third is head position. Keeping your head straight and level both vertically and horizontally will make you feel better, because it automatically releases endorphins in the body."

Practice makes perfect

Using open body language is a good way to create a rapport. Stand up straight, smile, make eye contact and, when sitting, don't cross your arms or legs. Showing the palms of your hands indicates an honest approach.

Another useful technique is to mirror your customer's body language. Many people copy gestures unconsciously anyway. It sends the message that you like and agree with the person you are talking to.

As with most things, says Phipps, practice makes perfect: "You have to give it time - your existing body language habits have been ingrained since you were a baby. But everyone can learn how to improve their body language. It's like any other business skill," he concludes.

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