Recently I addressed a leadership group about the importance of nonverbal communication in business. All of the senior managers actively participated in the session, asking questions and volunteering for various demonstrations. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in the topic. Everyone, that is, except one woman who sat for the entire time with her shoulders rounded, chin tucked in, and torso twisted slightly toward the exit. At the end of the program she said, “I really didn’t want to be here today.” But of course, I already knew that—and so did everyone else in the room. The woman’s body had been shouting out her discomfort all morning.
We reveal a lot about our attitudes, emotions and motives by the way we hold our bodies, especially when using closed or open postures.
In the ultimate closed body posture, arms are folded, legs are crossed, and the torso or legs are turned away. Rounding the upper body and hiding hands are closed signals that may also represent feelings of vulnerability or depression. More predictably than their male counterparts, women—when sitting—adopt an open-arm posture in the presence of someone they like, and tend to fold their arms across their chest when they feel indifferent to or dislike the other person.
In open and receptive body postures, legs are uncrossed, and arms are open with palms exposed or resting comfortably on the desk or conference table. If the arms are relaxed at the sides of the body while standing, this is also generally a sign of openness, accessibility, and an overall willingness to interact.
Two things I know for sure about open and closed postures:
1. Individuals with open body positions are perceived more positively than those with closed body positions.
2. Individuals with open body positions are more persuasive than those with closed body positions.
But see for yourself. Compare the body language of your co-workers. Watch the people who are the most convincing and successful. I bet you’ll find that they typically use open body positions when interacting with colleagues and presenting their ideas.
Physical posture can also show someone’s status in a group. I’ve seen meetings where all subordinates slumped, while the leader assumed a more erect posture that indicated her dominance. I’ve also watched two executives of similar heights meeting for the first time and saw both men straighten their postures and stretch their bodies to increase the perception of “tallness.”
These positions were taken without any of the participants being aware of doing so. However, sometimes awareness does play a role. People of equal status tend to mirror one another (unconsciously assuming similar or identical postures), but people who want to emphasize their higher status may deliberately adopt a different posture or stance to show they are not just “one of the gang.”
Leaning is another way your body indicates your emotions. Leaning backward usually signals feelings of dislike or negativity. It’s a hardwired response from the limbic brain; we subconsciously try to distance ourselves from anyone or anything that is unpleasant, disagreeable, or dangerous.
In a seated conversation, leaning backward can also communicate dominance. Someone feeling confident or superior will often sit leaning back with his fingers interlocked, hands behind his head and crossing one leg so that it rests on the other thigh and the knee opens up. This is a very masculine position that takes up a great deal of room and signals that the person is very sure of himself and of his place in the group.
Positive attitudes toward others tend to be accompanied by leaning forward—especially when sitting down. When two people like each other, you’ll see them both lean in. Research also shows that individuals who lean forward tend to increase the verbal output of the person they’re speaking with.
By the way, if you are using forward leans as a means to build positive relationships, be aware that leaning toward a person in the early stages of a conversation will generally be perceived as encroaching on his or her territory. Early leans can make people uncomfortable and decrease their perception of you as likeable. So wait until you’ve developed a level of rapport and interpersonal comfort. Then make your move.
You know that the way you feel affects your body—if you are reluctant or depressed, you tend to round your shoulders, slump, and look down; if you are upbeat you tend to hold yourself erect and expand your chest— but did you know that the reverse is also true? Your choice of posture has a powerful impact on your emotions. So the next time you go into a situation in which you want to project your most confident self, start by standing up straight, pulling your shoulders back and holding your head high. Just by assuming this physical posture, you will begin to feel surer of yourself.