The Body Language Secret: Fix These Eight Issues NOW!

by Sam Diener on November 17, 2009

failure to communicateWhen I started working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, I wasn’t good at communicating.

Out of the 40 or so customers I interacted with every day, I probably succeeded in ruining 39 of those interactions with some sort of “failure to communicate.” As you can imagine, at a company that consistently ranks as one of the best in customer service, this did not go over very well. I was with the company for a year and nine months so that’s roughly 25,236 customer interactions for those counting (leap year taken into account). Well, after about 5 customer complaints (it was my first month, okay!?), I knew I had to do something to change my ways.

I realized quickly that the problem was all in my body language. After all it accounts for 93% of what you say. My mouth wasn’t saying the wrong “stuff”; my body was. I had to learn what my body language was saying to right the wrongs of my poor customer connections.

Body language – what an interesting topic! (I promise I will make it fun).

Your body language makes an impact every time you open your mouth. And even if your mouth isn’t open… then your body language is STILL making an impact. So let’s just say it’s being perceived every time you are with someone else.

Fun fact: The widespread effect of body language was first noticed following the Nixon-Kennedy debate. It was the first televised presidential debate and Nixon, who was recovering from an illness, didn’t wear much makeup. He was said to havelooked uncomfortable. This was a stark contrast to a composed Kennedy. The people watching the debate on the tube thought that Kennedy won. And the people listening on the radio thought that Nixon won. What made up for the difference of opinion? Body language! Ooooh. Ahhhh.

So you want the goods? I’ll bet a dollar you didn’t know some of these. Keep in mind that these are behaviors that will effect interactions on a subconscious level so someone may never consciously realize the unconscious effect they have. But that’s why you are here!

  1. The Size-Down:This one is sadly overlooked by almost every guide to body language I have ever seen. In any case, when you approach someone, how do you size them up? Do you look them over with a bottom-up approach, or a top-down? What I mean is, do you start with their shoes, and work your way up (bottom-up) or start your way at their eyes, and work your way down (top-down)? Unless you have made a conscious effort to change this, you ARE using the top-down approach (It’s in our primal nature). And that’s BAD. Guess what it means….

    checking you outBetween Man and a Woman and vice versa: Well you are staring at their eyes first, and then you work your way down. You have to work your way back up. It’s called “Elevator Eyes.” And it’s also called “checking them out…” Oh and if you are a manager? BIG OOPS!

    Between Two Woman or Two Men: It’s actually an attempt to establish dominance. Not something you really want to project on a first impression to anyone.So what do you do about it? When you need to, change it! Use a bottom-up approach. Start with the shoes and work your way up to the eyes. It’s a submissive behavior and it is good for any interaction with someone you don’t know. The power in a relationship comes from letting someone else THINK they have the upper hand.
  2. The Upper-Hand: Speaking of the upper hand…. remember the handshake article? I talked about the dominant handshake. It’s SO important that you remember this one. Unfortunately, as I am still screaming at the top of my lungs from a VERY SMALL mountain, the entire working world hasn’t gotten the just yet. So let me repeat it again:never, never, NEVER come into a handshake with your palm down. For more info on this, I did write an article.
  3. The Slouched Shoulders: – Everyone has heard this one before but no one seems to be fixing it. Aside from ruining your back and posture, and making you look like a wimp, you come across as someone that will allow themselves to be walked all over. A person confident in themselves holds their shoulders back and lifts their chest up. Of course, if it was easy to fix, I wouldn’t be sitting here YELLING about it. Luckily I do have an easy fix – pick one: 25 push-ups a day or take up yoga.
  4. kangarooYour Own Personal Barriers to Communication: This is one of my favorites. I can go to any given social event and watch 99.7% of the attendees do this. Avoiding this behavior makes me look like a rock star. Putting any part of your body between yourself and your conversation partner is what I like to call creating a personal barrier to communication. You don’t look cool holding that drink out in front of you or across your body.  Crossing your arms at any point isn’t telling me that you are cold. Hold that drink by your side and get a warmer shirt.

    A variation of this is what I call “cutting your buddy out of the conversation.” You don’t want to do this to a friend. But it is even worse to do to a colleague and abhorrent to do to a boss, investor, etc. It involves placing any part of your body between that person and the person you are speaking with. This could your whole body, or just an arm.
  5. Leaving the Conversation Early: There are many times that you want to get out of a conversation but can’t (here’s how to do it). But what about the times when you are in a conversation and your body subconsciously tells the other person you really don’t want to be there. Believe me, it happens more than you think and it makes the other person think you are an asshole. The most frequent thing that happens to us all is that our eyes begin to wander around the room. You can usually tell when you are looking somewhere else than at the other person but what you don’t notice is when your feet give you away.People intrigued by a conversation usually are completely facing each other. However, when your mind begins to wonder, your body language begins to open up, and your feet may turn outwards. Be careful of this…. because you don’t want the other person thinking you are completely bored with them, even though you are.
  6. The Table Dance: Here is another one that most people don’t realize. This is not actually body language per se, but I honestly didn’t have a great place to put it. However, you should definitely be mindful of this.When you sit at a table, you have the ability to say a lot and influence the future relationship by where you choose to sit. For example, in a business situation if you were to sit directly across from someone at a rectangular table, the table sitting between you creates a barrier, and thus, an offensive /defensive or competitive relationship. The person closest, or with their back to the door, is in the defensive position. Instead, sit in a “cooperative position.” That means adjacent to the interviewer or colleague, etc. See picture. Oh, this is also helpful on dates too.I am sure you already know that if you are not the boss, or the host of a party, never sit at the head of the table. It’s incredibly rude.
  7. A and B are Competitive

    A and B are Competitive


    A and B are in a collaborative position

    A and B are in a collaborative position


  8. The Phony: I am not the most influential business person and I haven’t written a book on etiquette but, I am of the technology generation. This means, of all people generations, I am the most attached to my Blackberry.I recently read a story published by one of the top 4 business schools saying that checking your Blackberry during meetings and interactions was becoming more and more acceptable. And here is what I have to say to that: NO!If you and I are having a conversation and suddenly, in the middle of your sentence, I turn to my friend and start talking to him, how would you feel? How is pulling out your cell phone doing the same thing any different? If the person on the receiving end of your message is that important, why aren’t you with them instead of the person in front of you?
  9. The Distorted Mirror: There is a very cool thing about two people who have established rapport.  Their body language mirrors each others.   Subconsciously.  Go out and watch two people who have been talking for a while… it’s true.   But there is also an important corollary, if you are not relaxed and your body is not quiet (eg. fidgety) this subconscious symbol of rapport will not occur, and the person you are talking to will be thrown off and uncomfortable.  Therefore, if you are nervous, or otherwise extra “movemental,” make sure to eventually consciously mirror the other person’s body language.  It will make interaction go SO much better.
  10. The Question: What are some interesting behaviors you have noticed?  Comments are OPEN!

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  • richdematteo

    Oh man, the blackberry point is so true. During company meetings with 200 people I've seen so many people on their blackberry the entire time. During 1 on 1 conversations I haven't had someone open up their blackberry, and if they did they said excuse me. I've been lucky in that sense. It would probably annoy me if that happened.

    I really like your “Table Dance” point. This is exactly how I would train managers on how to interview. At my previous company every interview used Panel Interviewing (along with Behavioral method) as our strategy. Instead of the interviewers on one side of the table, we used round tables and had the candidate sit inbetween interviewers to avoid any intimidation. Worked wonders!

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Rich – and I am guilty of it as well. The blackberry thing. But if I
    am bored with you, I will generally just tell you before I get out my
    blackberry.

  • Kellie

    Great article! I felt I had a fairly good handle on body language; however, you’ve shown me a thing or two I wasn’t actually aware of myself. I’d never heard of the ‘size down.’

  • sophielavalcrha

    I read your article. Excellent and funny! Also, very interesting! Thank you

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  • Namrata

    Very interesting.

  • http://www.vennegroup.com Pam Venne

    Sam, with the holiday parties coming up I would also recommend that people be aware of where to put their name tag… on their right shoulder – because people shake with ther right hands and the name tag is now in the line of sight.

    Also, speaking of meeting people you would be amazed at how many people look down to find the other person's hand. I do this exercise in workshops i don on communication and 99% of the group looks down to find the hand. Most of us have good peripheral vision and can maintain eye contact with the person without looking down. This signal's lack of self-confidence and that is one of the last things you want to do when meeting someone new.

  • Jimmy Jones

    Sam,

    Why is that when I speak during an inteview I tend to get people to yawn….. I wonder if I'm monotone? How can find out? It's not good.

    Jimmy Jones

  • Michele Parlett

    Forgetting names is also a behavior that makes the first impression less than desirable. A quick tip to remember while shaking hands is always repeat the name you heard, and then introduce yourself, i.e. “Mike, it is good to meet you, I am Michele.” Something like that!

  • http://robinferianto.com/ robb

    i can't be any more agree to point #4.
    that's the problem with most people,
    and yet it's never been fixed.

    btw very nice article.

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Sophie – Thank you for reading!!!

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Jimmy – how often does this happen?

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Michele – I agree. I am actually really bad with names. I drive myself crazy sometimes. Great tip!

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Thanks robb. And it's really annoying!

  • HarryB

    93% of our communication is done through body language? And you know this how?

  • thegnu

    yeah, i do this when i remember, but i have to make sure to throw in the name a few times over, or i still forget. sometimes i can do mnemonic devices (mike, mike, he rides a bike), or just mentally say the person's name in a silly phrase (mike took his duck to shang-hai), and that helps.

    usually, i just end up apologizing to the person and getting their name again. :)

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    That is a pretty well known fact.

  • Jeff

    Another behavior that I find interesting is when there are two people standing talking to each other in a hallway and then when a third person needs to walk between them they usually shrink there shoulders and may even bend down a bit while walking between the two people talking. I am not sure but I assume this is to appear smaller and less threatening?

    Any ideas why people do this? It is very funny to watch because it happens all the time.

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    That is a really good one. I completely forgot about that one, but it is SO true. Maybe it's because people want to appear less important then the conversation they are interrupting. It could be like a temporary social status demotion. What do you think?

  • http://www.johnexleyonline.com JohnExley

    Solid content Mr. Diener! I think you'd do well if you opened each new blog of yours with a video summarizing it.

    Sometimes it's easier to listen to a short video and get to know you through a more personal interaction. Keep up the good work, my networking friend! Hope to see you at a conference or event sometime soon!

    - John Exley aka “X”

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  • clt

    Well said…and fun to read

  • No

    I hated this article, and it's totally personal, maybe it's just that I don't agree with your styles and what not, but I found myself disagreeing with you on almost every level. I say almost because You are spot on the the blackberry issue. Not trying to start something, or start a flame war, I just want to say that while these points are all valid I'm sure, there are methods that completely contradict most of them. Just as an Example with the table situation, I either don't understand the situation you are using this in or you don't understand formal dinners/meetings, if I sat on the corner of the table, it doesn't show interest it shows I have a lack of interest and need to move closer to the speaker to keep my attention, also it's horrible etiquette no one wants you in their face when you have a complete table to make use of, it shows you are inefficient and insecure.
    Sorry if I'm hurting any feelings or seem like I'm just trying to be argumentative I just wanted to point out these do not apply to all professional situations, or all situations in general.

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Thank you for being honest. I love when people who disagree with my work speak up. It helps make me better. Affirmations make you continue to write, but disuasion(sp?) opens the door to further learning.

    I wish you had identified yourself, as I would love to discuss this further with you. Feel free to contact me.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Sam

  • No

    I hated this article, and it's totally personal, maybe it's just that I don't agree with your styles and what not, but I found myself disagreeing with you on almost every level. I say almost because You are spot on the the blackberry issue. Not trying to start something, or start a flame war, I just want to say that while these points are all valid I'm sure, there are methods that completely contradict most of them. Just as an Example with the table situation, I either don't understand the situation you are using this in or you don't understand formal dinners/meetings, if I sat on the corner of the table, it doesn't show interest it shows I have a lack of interest and need to move closer to the speaker to keep my attention, also it's horrible etiquette no one wants you in their face when you have a complete table to make use of, it shows you are inefficient and insecure.
    Sorry if I'm hurting any feelings or seem like I'm just trying to be argumentative I just wanted to point out these do not apply to all professional situations, or all situations in general.

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Thank you for being honest. I love when people who disagree with my work speak up. It helps make me better. Affirmations make you continue to write, but disuasion(sp?) opens the door to further learning.

    I wish you had identified yourself, as I would love to discuss this further with you. Feel free to contact me.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    Sam

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  • amalia leubitz

    what does closing eyelids while talking indicate? I need to be looking into eyes while I listen and obviously – I can't…
    amalia leubitz

  • Jessie

    In my experience, it's to keep out of eye/mouth line. It's definitely to be less important than the interrupted conversation, but it's less about social status exactly, and more about camouflage. As your mother would tell you, you're a better door than a window.

  • katieklenner

    Your comments are sooo helpful! Thank you for taking the time to put this information out there and in such a friendly and witty way. Would you happen to have anything on phone-calling networking? Like how to best build rapport and capture the interest of the person called -in less than 10 seconds?

  • katieklenner

    Your comments are sooo helpful! Thank you for taking the time to put this information out there and in such a friendly and witty way. Would you happen to have anything on phone-calling networking? Like how to best build rapport and capture the interest of the person called -in less than 10 seconds?

  • Kevin

    Solid article on nonverbal communication! It's funny how much of it is unconscious.

  • Kevin

    Solid article on nonverbal communication! It's funny how much of it is unconscious.

  • Eric Wentworth

    A smile when meeting someone immediately establishes a level of rapport.

  • shansdailyfinds

    Thanks for these tips!
    Shannon

  • ShansDailyFinds

    Thanks for these tips!
    Shannon

  • Apurv Tiwari

    Yeah. Even i have the same problem. I try not to look down but i end up doing it. I don’t get frequent shake-hands so how to practice not doing it? Please help me!

  • Apurv Tiwari

    well that’s a law of nature! Even the other person would need to close his eyelids. Time yourself according to it or look down a bit to close your eyelids.

  • Apurv Tiwari

    well i have this problem with my friends. I am walking in between but the 2 on my sides start talking. Then I am stuck. So i stop for a moment, pretending to do something to my clothes, so that i am a step behind them. But this makes me feel a bit bad that none of the 2 friends noticed me and even if i stop walking with them, they don’t notice it many a times!

  • http://www.vennegroup.com Pam Venne

    Apurv, you can practice with friends and family or make it a habit of introducing yourself to clerks in the store where you are shopping and then thank them for their service when you are finished by shaking their hand. This would work in Western cultures. I am not sure about your culture or where you are working.

  • Apurv Tiwari

    Well my friends give me limp handshakes – the dead fish type. So, i don’t prefer shaking hands with them, but yeah, i can do it as a practice. The store clerk idea is good. Well the Western culture and Indian culture is not much different nowadays – so i won’t have much problem in doing that. Thank you so much for this valuable advice!

  • http://www.vennegroup.com Pam Venne

    If your friends give you limp handshakes you might want to coach them on the reasons for a firmer handshake and share this article. Good luck!

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