What are we really saying?

Could our body unwittingly be our very own PR manager? It takes just 7 seconds for someone new to form an opinion of us, these perceptions are based on how we look and sound, rather than what we say. When we get a “gut feeling” about someone, it’s often hard to establish what exactly we’re responding to. This is where non-verbal cues come in as they’re processed immediately but on a subconscious level. Interestingly, studies have shown these observations to be surprisingly accurate.

So, what exactly are we looking for in a first meeting? Research in social perceptions has shown that we respond most strongly to warmth. Smiling, eye contact and open-handed gestures all signal welcome and interest. Studies have also revealed that physical warmth triggers warm feelings towards a new individual too. For some with naturally cool hands, warming them up by rubbing them together or running them under the tap before a first handshake was a tried and tested (pre-Covid19!) technique.

It’s worth noting here the negative associations attached to “colder” words. We talk of frosty receptions, the cold shoulder or getting a chilly response – linking physical warmth with psychological warmth.

Nonverbal communication stems from our limbic system. It’s the part of our brain involved in behavioural and emotional responses, particularly those that we need for survival. The limbic system reacts to the world, it doesn’t think about the world. Consider fight or flight responses such as freezing at a loud noise or covering your mouth in shock. In many ways these are our most authentic responses, they haven’t been modulated by our rational brain.

Reactions such as covering your neck, or clutching at your pearls, in shock or fear date back to the earliest days of human existence, it’s a limbic response to the large felines that would have stalked our environment. Conversely, tilting the head and exposing the neck shows vulnerability and engenders a certain level of trust.

Body language expert Joe Navarro claims that the face is the most dishonest part of the body. From a young age we learn to “put on a face” in order to conform to social norms. Instead, Navarro urges you to look at someone’s feet. In a meeting and your colleagues’ feet are tapping or pointing towards the door? I hate to break the news, but they’re dying to get out of there!

If body language has a huge influence over our “personal brand”, can we do anything to improve the image we’re projecting? Unfortunately, we can’t override our limbic system or suppress our non-verbal cues, but we can be more aware of the signals we’re putting out. Are you distracted and looking around the room? This could come across as a lack of interest or respect. The same can be said for frequently checking your phone. Talking too fast can be interpreted as nervousness or distrust, while good posture engenders energy and confidence. 

We can also be considerate of the non-verbal cues we’re receiving from other people. A team member says they’re happy to work on a project but at the same time is biting their lip or touching their neck? It might be worth digging a little deeper or offering extra support.

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