If we were all mute, we’d still be able to carry on some pretty good conversations.
Reason being, of course, is that the majority of our communication is done nonverbally or most predominantly through our body language such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture.
We know this intellectually but in the midsts of our conversations, we often forget. Unless there is a clear incongruence between the verbal message and the body language displayed. Like when your mopey friend insists “I’m Fine!” you realize the words require deeper inquiry.
Even though we aren’t regularly mindful of our body language, we should understand that it’s the most authentic way we convey our truest thoughts, feelings, and motivations whether we intend to share them or not.
The FBI, for instance, knows this and uses it to its advantage. It regularly relies on reading body language to observe unspoken clues by suspects enabling a more calculated judgment of people.
Microexpressions Give Away Your Secrets
The reason your body can’t lie has everything to do with displaying microexpressions. Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. They’re expressed by everyone (every person in every culture) and unconsciously expose a person's true emotions.
There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise and contempt. There is no way to prevent yourself from displaying microexpressions especially when emotions are charged. But learning to detect them is useful for maturing your emotional intelligence as well as detecting deception in others. There’s a reason poker players wear sunglasses.
Microexpressions are impossible to repress which is helpful if you want to detect them in others. Being able to decode others’ facial expressions is like having x-ray vision of another’s true thoughts. You can certainly take formal training to become proficient in this but the easier option is to watch a lot of TV and movies. Oftentimes, for dramatic effect, a character actor will display a quick emotional reaction at a pivotal point in the scene. This is a microexpression in slow motion.
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Being Deliberate in How You Display Body Language
While you can’t control your facial microexpressions, you can control your body language. Relying on body language in communication helps convey all the subtlety and nuance about ourselves in an efficient yet impactful way. How you move your body can speak more precisely than words could ever. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, it can set forth your reputation and personal brand
We need to be careful because our body language can send mixed signals if we’re not paying attention. When we’re not being mindful of how we present ourselves, we can broadcast a message that is not aligned with our intent. This is then picked up by others without us even realizing it and it all happens in an instant.
Imagine the new intern who is nervous and a little socially awkward. On his first day, he walks through the office with his arms crossed to try to hide is uncomfortableness. He’s a good guy but feels insecure in the new setting. While this is understandable, his body language is telling others he’s closed off and perhaps untrustworthy.
Best Ways to Communicate Through Body Language
Whether you feel it or not, try to have your body language convey a sense of confidence, ease, relatability, and warmth.
1 - Posture
Be mindful of how you both sit and stand. Maintain a tall spine with shoulders back and your head slightly elevated. The opposite of this posture is what you probably look like when you’re checking your phone. With eyes down, head bowed, and shoulders hunched this can make you look small and cowering. While everyone does it, it’s not a good look. Try to override the tendency to appear this way.
2 - Use of Hands
A firm and confident handshake is a no brainer. But it’s probably more important to be mindful of what you do with your hands once the handshake is over. Display confidence or ease by just keeping your hands at your side or behind your back. Crossing them in front of you demonstrates being closed off or defensive. Refrain from touching your face as well as this can make you appear insecure or uncomfortable.
3 - Eye Contact
Obviously, look people in the eye when speaking with them. It demonstrates assurance and interest. But read your conversation partner(s). Some people are unnerved by prolonged eye contact. Periodically break away to look at a distant object before resuming eye contact. Repeat this cycle. Depending on the read of your conversation partner, you may break away more or less frequently.
4 - Facial Expressions
This is the most prominent way of expressing emotions through the body. It incorporates eyes, eyebrow, lips, nose, and cheek movements. From birth, we look to faces for information and social connection and they can go a long way in helping us bond by displaying empathy. Smile with reassuring nods while someone is telling a good story or grimace and shake your head when hearing something difficult.
To build rapport with others faster, subtly copy their body language using a technique called mirroring. This unconsciously builds trust because conversation partners see their own gestures and mannerisms in your body language and this naturally puts them at ease. This needs to be done subtly to work! Otherwise, they’ll just think you’re weird.
Let Your Body Language Show How Much You Care
Understanding body language psychology can go a long way in positioning yourself as desired. But it can also spur on deeper social connections.
A handshake is more than a handshake when it’s accompanied by a squeeze of the elbow or a pat on the hand. It expresses focused attention.
I have a hair stylist who knows how to do this right. Kimmie’s a master of conveying emotion and trust through her body language. Obviously, this is a benefit to her as her occupation relies on trust between strangers.
From the first time I met her, I was taken by her warmth. Every time I see her I am met with a kind smile while she deliberately “reads my face” as I talk with her. Meaning, while I’m speaking, she scans my face searching for more meaning behind my words. Like she really, really wants to know what’s on my mind.
Now, this may sound creepy but it’s not. She does this very naturally and authentically. It leaves me feeling genuinely listened to and cared for. I’ve seen her do this with others and from my observations, she leaves most others feeling the exact same way. She’s got the gift.
I assume Kimmie’s ability is intuitive or unconscious but it’s certainly worth modeling. Even if you’re not a natural “face reader”, consider your own personality and communication style to determine what it is about you that can help you better connect with others. Think about your own gestures, mannerisms, or communication habits that are distinct and memorable. What could be your hallmark?
Lost Meaning in Electronic Communication
Communication through intentional body language can even take a relationship farther. It’s the subtle precursor to the spark or chemistry between people. The playful shove, the flirtatious wink, the mischievous grin.
But these days when we rely so much on electronic means to communicate we lose this opportunity for social bonding. We are expecting verbal (or typed) communication to adequately convey the depths and complexities of what we’re trying to express.
That’s a tall order. Is this why emojis are so popular?! It’s an attempt, I guess, but that’s a lot of responsibility to put on an emoji. 😲
Harm From No Personal Interaction
In the end, more screens and fewer personal interactions (and all the body language that goes with it) are causing real harm to our mental health and social health. Data shows rates of depression and anxiety began to rise at the time the smartphone was introduced. And it continues to grow in lockstep with broader smartphone adoption.
Further, decreased personal contact has mirrored a decline in empathy as well. Research conducted at the University of Michigan suggests college students are 40 percent less empathetic compared to their peers 30+ years ago.
And the level of narcissism has increased by 58 percent. Researchers cite principal causes as broader exposure to media and the advent of social media for the younger cohort. Time in front of screens means less time in front of real people.
So the fact is the depths of our human experience as lived out through our enriching social engagements depend entirely on literal facetime. Without you reading me and me reading you, we’ll never have a bond.
Often the messages conveyed through our body language speak volumes and in ways our words simply cannot express. It can betray our honest emotions whether we know it or not and it’s the magic that can accelerate forming our deepest relationships. For something that carries such meaning, our body language displayed—for the world to interpret—deserves equally our attention while we convey with accuracy our sincere intention.
Give some thought to how you non-verbally communicate. Here is a great resource that breaks down all non-verbal communication. This exercise may be helpful to do with someone who knows you really well because it’s hard to recognize how we’re perceived by others. Following the exercise determine what your body language strengths and areas of opportunities are. What can be your hallmark?
When have you misread someone because of their body language? Share your stories below.
Christina is the creator of ConvoConnection a resource for those struggling with loneliness or social aversion. Through practical instruction and heartfelt encouragement, she shares easy and practical ways to have more genuine and comfortable social real life interactions. Check out these free resources to help feel comfortable starting any conversation.