Body Language and its Essential Role in Effective Communication

To the Type A personality, it may be easy to shrug off “body language” as a mere soft skill that falls a distant second to technical prowess.  In the world of multi-disciplinary consulting engineering, however, body language is a critical component of effective communication, which is at the heart of any successful project.  During the Echelon Front leadership training that our team participated in, I had a big takeaway about the effects that body language can have on teams. Whether communicating constraints, challenges or progress to the client, or communicating daily across the discipline interfaces amongst the project team, body language can often be the “make or break” in determining how clearly and effectively a communication is made and interpreted.

Body language simply refers to the non-verbal cues that we rely upon to communicate; the way we listen, look, move, and react.  According to experts, these cues comprise 60-65% of all communication.  The context in which these cues are made account for another 20-25% of all communication, leaving the explicit words, written or verbal, only accounting for 10-20% of what we are actually attempting to communicate.  When our body language is consistent with the context and words we choose, it increases trust, clarity and rapport.  When it is inconsistent, it can lead to tension, mistrust, and confusion.  It is for this reason that we are at our most influential when we are communicating face-to-face.

I have found that the following body language suggestions can help create consistency between the context and the words, creating an environment that is most conducive to effective communication and therefore high performance in teams and leaders:

  • Facial Expressions: Facial expression is often the first non-verbal cue that someone you meet notices.  Quick tip: Try to stimulate good feelings by starting a conversation with a smile.  It is a positive signal that creates an invitation of inclusion to a listener.  Be cognizant of both the demeanor you are projecting with your own facial expression, as well as the potential mindset of your listener based on their facial expression.  Ensure that your facial expression is consistent with the emotion you would like to convey for the interaction; Happiness?  Sadness?  Surprise?  Confusion?  Excitement?  Concern?
  • Eye Contact: Eye contact indicates openness and interest.  Quick tip: Make it a habit to note the eye color of everyone you meet to ensure that you are taking advantage of this opportunity.
  • Physical Contact: Touch is the most powerful non-verbal cue and is the quickest method to form a human connection with someone.  A handshake is a great/appropriate way to do this in a business setting.  Quick tip: A firm grip (not vice grip) with palm-to-palm contact leaves a lasting impression and quickly creates strong rapport.
  • Tone of Voice: “How” you say it is just as important as “what” you say.  Maintain a steady timing and pace in your voice without being robotic.  When listening, use well timed sounds such as, “ahh” to convey understanding. Quick tip: Be cognizant of your volume, tone, and inflection, all of which convey meaning such as sarcasm, anger, or confidence.
  • Arms and Legs: To establish an openness and trustworthiness, your arms should be comfortable and at your side, slightly bent and not folded in front of you.  While speaking to a group, incorporate gestures that allow your arms and hands to move between your waist and shoulders.  Quick tip: Avoid emphatic pointing to prevent a perception of defiance.  Establish a comfortable, open stance and avoid shifting your feet around unnecessarily, as this projects evasiveness and a lack of conviction.
  • Posture: When conversing with others in a business setting, lean in slightly to show engagement and interest, while being respectful of someone’s personal space.  Quick tip: Remove physical barriers like a desk or even a coffee cup, to improve an interaction.
  • Increased Engagement: It may sound simple, but when conversing or meeting in a business setting, look like you are listening; don’t multitask, don’t check your phone or watch, and observe how others in room are reacting to what you are saying.  Quick tip: When listening, focus on the speaker by turning your torso and head and making eye contact.  Leaning slightly forward, nodding and tilting your head in reaction to queries will show that you are engaged.

– Rick Knoll, Business Operations, Brindley Engineering