A Crash Course in Body Language, Part 1

To be truly persuasive, you need to have full control over all three channels of human communication. Verbal language is just one channel – although many people believe that we express ourselves solely through words.

While it is true that verbal language has proven to be efficient in conveying statistics, knowledge and facts, it still remains that we use three different channels of communication when we interact with other people. When it comes to face to face interactions, you need to be aware of what your body is communicating because that is what people are really paying attention to.

Body language matters

According to studies in linguistics and anthropology, body language constitutes 50% to 70% of the entire message when a person communicates with another person. Our body language may not seem much at all when we are talking but we are actually sending a bigger message through our facial expressions, gestures and other physical expressions.

The human mind is hardwired to be observant of physical expressions and our brains are also extra efficient in processing and decoding the various signals sent out through nonverbal language. It doesn’t really matter if you are talking to a person from another culture; we have an instinctual awareness and understanding of what body language signals are and what they convey.

Sure, verbal language allows you to intelligently express your ideas but in the final analysis, your persuasiveness and influential power are greatly affected by what people see when you are trying to intelligently express yourself. For example, did you know that placing your arms and hands at your sides when you are talking in front of a group of people is actually a message that you are either playing dead or you are about to fall asleep?

Putting your arms at the sides actually triggers a fight or flight response in the body because in ancient times, our ancestors had to play dead to avoid being eaten by larger animals. Playing dead was much more effective than trying to run away from a vicious, big-toothed animal.

This mentality and instinctual reaction has stayed with us even if we are no longer being chases by massive predators. And when your body language is communicating that you are playing dead, your spectators will think that you have already froze and you are not confident at all with what you are saying. To be influential, you need to get the trust of your audience.

They need to be confident that you know what you are saying and you know exactly what you want to convey. But when the arms drop to the sides, all chances of projecting your credibility crumbles instantly because your body language is not coinciding with your verbal language.

That’s another thing that you have to watch out for: your verbal language has to coincide with your nonverbal language because people tend to mistrust others if they detect cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when your verbal message does not match the message being sent out by your body.

The two channels must run parallel to each other (this applies to your verbal channel as well). If there is friction between the two channels, it is possible that your audience will think that you are telling a downright lie or you are hiding something from them.

Cognitive dissonance breeds mistrust and shatters harmony or rapport, so be very careful with your body language. One of the main reasons why people tend to say no is that the persuader is not showing the right body language. People can become extremely defensive when they think that the person in front of them is not being completely truthful to them.

Body language works both ways

Masters of influence must express the right body language and must also be aware of how to read body language correctly. There is a right way and wrong way of doing things; in the case of reading and understanding body language, you must learn to be observant and you must remember to always read body language in context and in clusters.

Let’s discuss all of these points so you would always be able to properly understand body language. The first requirement is that you become observant of the other person’s body language. You must be able to detect subtle changes in the expressions and gestures of the other person if you want to catch any changes in his thoughts and emotions.

For example, if you were having a good conversation with someone whom you are attracted to and he/she suddenly folds his/her arms, what might this mean? You have already been observant (you have noted the change in body language) but that is not enough. The next step in the process is to understand the context of the body language.

Ask yourself: why was there a change in the body language of the subject? Crossing the arms in front of the body is a sign of defensiveness and possibly anxiety. The person is protecting his vital organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines, etc.) from possible attack; that is why he is placing his arms in front of him. But it is also possible that the person is crossing his arms because it is really cold. Do you see the difference?

Without any context, body language will not make any sense at all because you will end up making many false conclusions in the end. The next step is identifying the cluster of signs that will constitute the nonverbal statement. Individual gestures are only phrases.

You must be able to connect a single nonverbal phrase with another phrase to make sense of what is being expressed nonverbally. This is called the nonverbal cluster.

It is better to identify nonverbal clusters than to read individual expressions because individual gestures and expressions are often inadequate for any meaningful reading. If you can keep these three recommendations in mind when you are reading the body language of other people, you are well on your way to mastering how body language works.

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