August 12, 2019

Mastering Your Body Language and Professional Destiny – Five Tips to Get You Started

4 min

As part of Venable's ongoing effort to promote the advancement of women professionals, Women Attorneys at Venable (WAVe) recently hosted a dynamic evening with Janine Driver, founder of The Body Language Institute. Driver offered fascinating insights into the importance of recognizing and mastering nonverbal cues. I was struck by how much our gestures and expressions can influence the outcome of our daily interactions. Here are my top five takeaways:

1. Read the Signs

As Driver explained, body language shows up five seconds before thought. If we are not self-aware, this can be more than enough time to give the wrong impression. Fluency in nonverbal communication can make us better masters of our own emotions, or help us recognize what others may be feeling just by observing their movements. In a business setting, this recognition can help us know when to make our move and when to stay quiet. Driver offered memorable phrases to highlight some indicators that a person may be, respectively, uncomfortable, afraid, or downright appalled:

"When we don't like what we see or hear, our lips disappear."
"When fear is here, white eyes appear."
"Elbows out, disaster about."

If you notice a client, colleague, or business partner adopting any of these behaviors, you might want to proceed with caution, aware that, as Driver put it, you don't want your proposal associated with whatever caused the negative emotion on display.

2. Use the Tools

No matter how well we dress or speak, we are most often judged on our body language. While there will always be moments when we react instinctively, by practicing certain gestures, and building them into our repertoire, we can actually make ourselves feel as well as look empowered. Driver pointed out some power poses frequently adopted by highly successful people: Former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi is often seen with her hand on her chin (a gesture that indicates "winning"), or sitting at a diagonal with one shoulder raised, indicating that she is carefully evaluating a situation. Employing the "hand steeple" while talking (fingers touching, palms apart), a favorite of Oprah Winfrey's, can help you take control of a conversation. Standing with hands on both hips can give off a Wonder Woman vibe. And, according to Driver, some poses that we were raised to stay away from, such as crossing our arms, can be valuable and actually make us smarter. (There is some evidence that crossing your arms can engage both sides of the brain and therefore make you more likely to solve a problem.) Of course, there are also poses to avoid, such as "The Pacifier" – rubbing one's thigh, arm, or neck – which can indicate discomfort at best and dishonesty at worst.

3. Think Like a Hostage Negotiator

How do you take the most difficult person or situation and turn the tide in five minutes or less? Driver suggests adopting the techniques used in hostage negotiation. She referenced the classic example of TV's Mr. Rogers' 1969 Senate appearance, in which he converted the borderline hostile committee leader, Senator Pastore, into an ardent supporter of CPB funding in just 4 minutes and 47 seconds. The techniques Rogers applied – establishing trust, flattering his opponent, and assigning the traits he wanted him to have – were all straight out of the hostage negotiation playbook. Rogers told the senator he "trusted" him to read his presentation, that he knew the senator understood the challenges facing children (flattery), and that he knew the senator was deeply concerned about children (trait assigning), even though the senator gave no such indication. Rogers not only knew how to code behavior; he knew how to influence it. In other words, he read the room, then rewrote it, a tactic that could be successfully applied to business negotiation.

4. Be "Effective," Not Just "Right"

It may be tempting to tell someone what's best for them when we happen to know we're right, but doing so is not always the most effective way to get what we want. One quick way to become more effective, Driver suggested, was to eliminate the word why from our vocabulary. Or, as she put it: "Say goodbye to the why, and allow what and how." The reasoning being that why can make a person feel judged, while asking what and how can elicit the information we need or the desired outcome without judging. Try this tactic when managing projects or members of your team. Asking "What inspired this approach" or "How did you arrive at that decision" may uncover insights different from those you get when simply asking why.

5. Be Authentically You

Finally, although we may all secretly want to be Wonder Woman or Superman, it's much more important to be ourselves. Small changes in your body language can change your life, but they shouldn't change who you are. A successful team, family, or any kind of community needs all sorts of people to perform at its best. We are all better contributors when we show up as our authentic selves.