Dr. Albert Mehrabian knows a thing or two about communication. Based on his research, Mehrabian asserts that 7% of what we communicate is based on the words we say. The balance of the message is split between our tone of voice and nonverbal elements like body language. While those percentages can shift depending on specific circumstances, the core of this research remains true: It’s not what we say; it’s how we say it.
This may not be news to you. In fact, it’s part of why you focus on your tone of voice when correcting your children. The role of non-verbal communication was at the back of your mind as you worked to maintain eye contact during your last job interview. Here’s what some common body language cues are communicating, whether you realize it or not:
I hear you.
Tipping your head to one side indicates you’re interested and paying attention. Nodding your head occasionally as you hear someone can translate to “I’m following. I understand.” It may not indicate agreement so don’t assume this body language is confirmation that the person you’re speaking to is on board with your point of view. They may simply want you to know they’re keeping up with what you’re saying.
Your eyebrows have something to say.
Raising your eyebrows telegraphs that you’re interested in learning more. On the other hand, a furrowed brow more indicates confusion, distaste, concern, or even fear.
I remember, I’m shy, or I’m lying?
Should we measure someone’s veracity based on their ability to make and hold eye contact? Not necessarily. Someone who looks away may be working to recall a fact or memory. Looking up, to the side or down can be an indication that they’re pulling data from their brain. Others who avoid your gaze and appear nervous may be shy. There’s some measure of boldness required to hold tight to a person’s gaze. On the other hand, a person who is avoiding eye contact while also leaning back, blinking, and scratching at their arms or face, may be lying, especially if they seem to be searching for words, talking quickly or stammering. And while we’re on the subject of eye contact, remember there is also a cultural component to this one. In some cultures, maintaining eye contact can be viewed as confrontational or a challenge to authority.
I’m defeated, I’m overwhelmed and I need a confidence boost.
Slumped posture, slouched shoulders, and slight dip of the head can all indicate elevated levels of stress or a decrease in confidence. If that sounds like you, try this: push your shoulders back and lift your chin up. Studies show this simple body posture change can imbue a renewed level of confidence!
Just hurry up already!
Some of us are just fast talkers. Some of us tend to use our hands to express ourselves. Just be aware that waving your hands in quick, choppy movements, especially when coupled with fast-paced speech, can be viewed as a sign of impatience.
All hands on deck.
As you talk and listen, is your hand open or closed? Even a loose fist can indicate your unwillingness to budge from your position, as can holding your hands palm side down. Conversely, an open hand or a hand that faces palm up says, “I’m willing to listen and open to new ideas.” And if you hide your hands? You may leave others wondering what else your hiding, or at minimum question your comfort level and confidence.
You can’t fake it.
While your posture can imbue a degree of self-confidence and a thoughtful nod can say “I hear you,” much of what our body says occurs without a conscious effort to communicate it. When we force body language, we may create a series of confusing, mixed signals. For example, someone may have told you that “steepling” your hands (palms facing together, finger tips touching) conveys confidence. You may be focused on your hands trying to illustrate your self-assuredness, while unconsciously chewing the inside of your lower lip. Try this instead: If you want to appear more self-confident, as an example, work on boosting your self-esteem with positive self-talk and then let your body language do the talking for you.