How can body language affect your feelings and the feelings of others?
Much has been written on the need to take care of how we present ourselves through our body language, that I worry we have come to a point where we dismiss it, thinking yes, I know all that. Arms crossed against our body means this, or hunched shoulders means that.
That said, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the real power of body language. The common phase ‘Fake it until you make it’ encourages us to imitate confidence, so that we appear confident and eventually become successful. The same thinking encourages us to avoid feeling beaten before we try; otherwise we end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unless we look and act confident, other people will certainly pick up on the signals.
Watch TED Talk by Amy Cuddy, ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’
Using positive body language is all about ensuring that whoever we are dealing with think we are, for example confident, when we are feeling far from it. So, one could conclude this as theory – ‘using our body language to fool those around us’. However, the power of body language goes much deeper.
The real power is about convincing ourselves until we become it. So nothing fake at all. This thinking is not new. Aristotle wrote:
‘Ethical virtues are acquired by habituation; they do not arise in us from birth, but we by nature have the capacity to receive and perfect them’.
Modern day therapy combats depression using a similar technique. The idea is to continually go through the routines of life as if one were positive about them (despite the fact that initially it feels forced) until the happiness becomes real.
In a management development setting
We were asked to work with a senior team who had real behaviour issues which resulted in weekly management meetings dissolving into chaos. When we looked at the individual behaviours, we noticed that a few of the managers were quite aggressive. However, one manager in particular was extremely passive and shy to make his point in any meeting of more than two people. We could quickly see how frustration was building up.
As part of an overall management development programme, we included some development on meetings management and that included body language.
Over a three day period, we worked with eight managers and got them to individually adjust their body language. I recall that the shy man was encouraged to take on more of an ‘all knowing’ stance. He was asked to sit up right, close to the table, with his fingers ‘steepled’ in front of him, and to make good eye contact when he spoke. We encouraged him to direct his contribution to individuals and not the group as a mass.
We filmed the group discussing a topic that was on their management agenda over a 60 minute period. The result was staggering. The shy man not only looked more authoritative, his voice had changed, becoming louder and much stronger. When he looked at individuals to speak, he adjusted the way in which he presented information by being more specific.
It didn’t stop there. We had set the body language of the aggressive managers to be more passive.
The aggressive managers changed their behaviour and immediately were less dominant and forthright. Our shy man was now being listened to. Other managers were now contributing and the group were discussing issues without getting frustrated or arguing.
The management team were not only staggered by the filmed review but also how the changes in their own body language had made them feel.
Our shy man was quite emotional and said the change to his body language had made him feel so much more powerful and that in turn, helped him feel more authoritative when he spoke.
The managers were also stunned at how they had responded to each other. In this frank and open review session, one manager commented on how our shy man had been completely transformed during the role-play and how his usual passiveness had not caused him to feel frustrated as it usually did.
So here we had experienced a real step change in not only how managers responded to each other but in how each manager felt inwardly. This then impacted on how they each spoke and behaved.
Long term effect of adjusting body language
Some months later, at a project review, we learned that managers had embraced their new ‘personas’ and each had adapted their individual approach. This resulted in more fruitful and positive meeting outcomes.
The real power of body language is definitely using it to change the way we are and feel, not just the way in which others perceive us.