We’ve all encountered colleagues whose physical presence makes us vaguely uncomfortable. They might perch on our desk rather than sitting in a chair, or lean in a little too close for a chat. They might look at the wall or fiddle with their smartphone while we talk. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that we’ve all done equally irritating things ourselves without realizing it.
Research suggests body language makes up as much as 80 percent of all communication. And, because the vast majority of nonverbal cues are automatic nervous-system responses, most of us are fairly oblivious to what our bodies communicate, says former FBI special agent Joe Navarro, coauthor of What Every Body Is Saying (HarperCollins, 2008), with Marvin Karlins, PhD.
For better or worse, body language tends to broadcast the way we are feeling, says Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help — or Hurt — How You Lead (Jossey-Bass, 2011). “Almost all of our body language is driven by some kind of emotion,” she explains.
When we’re feeling things we’re not ready to overtly express, our bodies often do the talking for us.
The problem is that when we’re not aware of the messages our bodies are sending, we may find ourselves getting reactions from other people that we don’t understand, says Goman. Or we may wind up inadvertently offending and distancing people in ways that create unintended conflicts.
Often, the postures we adopt offer subtle (or not so subtle) cues about our true level of comfort, attention or emotional connection.
In other cases, though, body language can simply be the result of ingrained, unconscious habits. For example, a woman who was uncomfortable with her chest as a teenager might habitually cross her arms, unaware that she might be broadcasting a message of hostility to the very colleagues she wishes to impress.
The key to mastering your own body’s signals is to become conscious of whether or not they are consistent with the emotional messages you intend to relay. If you suspect one or more of the following habits might be sending the wrong signals and causing you unwanted trouble at work, here’s what you can do about it.
1. Telltale Tune-Outs
Ever tried to have a conversation with someone who is constantly checking text messages, fidgeting, staring down at the floor or picking lint off her clothes? The feeling you get is: This person doesn’t really care what I’m saying.
Given the barrage of electronic communication we all face these days, it might seem socially acceptable to shoot off a text or glance at our computer screen during a chat. We may even think this multitasking makes us appear professionally dedicated and efficient. But by fracturing our attention, we’re actually making our interactions less efficient. We may also wind up discouraging others from sharing complex, sensitive or important information with us because they pick up on the message that “it’s not a good time.”
Making it clear to others that you are paying attention is fairly simple, says Goman. First, sit still. Know that playing with your pencil or checking your texts communicates inattention. Get in the habit of turning your head and body toward whoever is speaking. Make eye contact. Leaning forward, nodding and tilting your head are other nonverbal ways to indicate interest.
Such small adjustments can yield rich rewards. “You’ll not only be received positively,” Goman says, “but you will also likely receive reciprocal attention.”
2. Defensive Maneuvers
When we cover the body’s points of vulnerability, like the stomach and groin, or we cross our arms or place our hands on our hips, we’re in a defensive posture. Human beings often assume defensive postures when they feel criticized, attacked or manipulated, says Navarro, who characterizes these responses as “part of our nervous system’s flight-or-fight response.” These body postures signal aggression (much like a dog’s growl), and because they tell people to back off, they tend to shut down communication.
When you notice your hackles are up, try taking a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re safe. Think about someone you love or a pleasant experience you have planned after work. Remembering you have a life beyond this moment will help call off the nervous system’s state of alarm.
If someone else is using defensive body language around you, make space, Navarro suggests. “Take a step back and turn your body to a slight angle,” he says. You might also try standing next to (rather than across from) the other person, and “tilting your head slightly to create a sense of empathy and openness.”
3. Oozing Expressions
Negative feelings at work are inevitable, but it’s critical to deal with them professionally. Just-barely-suppressed emotions can manifest in passive-aggressive behaviors like sneering, sulking and even eye rolling. “Rolling the eyes immediately communicates a sense of disapproval and disrespect,” says Navarro.
Breaking this habit requires some self-awareness and healthy discipline. Communications coach Nick Morgan, author of How to Read Body Language (New Word City e-Book, 2010), suggests that if you’re inclined toward letting your negative feelings leak out in this way, you begin practicing more appropriate methods of processing strong feelings in a professional setting. If you’re upset at work, diffuse the emotional charge outside the office: Go to the gym, see a movie, take a long walk. Then, when it’s time to discuss the situation with your colleagues — a round of layoffs, unreasonable deadlines, overwhelming overtime — be direct and to the point.
Directness also can be an antidote to a coworker’s passive-aggressive antics. If you notice someone making a face or rolling his eyes, just ask calmly if he has something to say. This will likely stop the behavior cold and might even provoke a problem-solving conversation. (See “Who Says I’m Angry?!” page 82.)
4. Space Invaders
You’ve probably noticed that people in positions of power tend to take up a lot of room at the table: They splay their legs, spread their arms or slap people on the back as a greeting. While this may look like supreme confidence, hogging space or crossing physical boundaries is often just a sign of insensitivity.
“Violations of our personal space make us hypervigilant,” Navarro says. We may think we’re communicating confidence or joviality, but we might just be making our colleagues uncomfortable by getting too close.
While the meaning of “too close” varies between individuals and cultures, most Americans consider the 4 square feet of space around them to be “personal space.” Unless you have a personal relationship outside the office, crossing this line with a colleague can send a signal of disrespect or intimidation. So stay in what’s considered “social space” — between 4 and 12 feet — with everyone but your pals.
And rather than putting hands behind your head or stretching out your legs at the boardroom table, communicate confidence by assuming a calm, upright posture in your chair, with both feet planted firmly on the ground. This shows you know how to claim your space and leave room for others, too.
Juliet Patterson is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis.