I admit I'm an inveterate eavesdropper. Some mornings I work at a local Caribou, where I write, sip a nonfat latte and listen in on a variety of conversations-some interesting, most not very. But I've found that I can tell a lot about the conversation without even having to hear the words being said-and I'm sure you can, too.
That, in essence, is body language-all of communication that occurs aside from the actual words and vocal inflection you use. Facial expressions. Gestures. Your overall posture. The way you position your body toward or away from someone. Even your hairstyle, your clothing and your jewelry contribute to body language and impact what people think of you and how they respond to you.
"Your word choices are important, but what happens with nonverbal communication determines 'yes' or 'no' faster and far more often," says body language expert Kevin Hogan, author of The Psychology of Persuasion. "Everything from how you are perceived upon first impression to the small, almost hidden nuances that your body signals to other people determines whether someone will like you, believe you or want to stay in your presence."
Once you become more aware of the unspoken messages you're sending, you can easily appear more confident, make a better impression and improve your communication with friends, family and co-workers. You're even more likely to get your own way.
Read on for common communication challenges, and how your body language can help you master them:
Having trouble connecting with your kid? First off, get on her level. If she's sitting on her bed, join her; if she's sprawled on the floor, make yourself comfortable next to her. That gives an unspoken message that you consider her equally important and that you want to hear what she has to say. Keep your posture open, arms at your sides or in your lap instead of crossing them over your chest.
The next step is to reach out physically-without crowding her. "One of the best ways to bring a person in is to use a hand gesture as you're speaking-to reach out with your arm and show your palm in a friendly way, palm raised up, toward the person," says David B. Givens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., and the author of Love Signals (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006) and Crime Signals (St. Martin's Griffin, 2009). "You've reduced the physical distance between the two of you and projected an attitude of being together on the same team."
Using a palms-up gesture invites conversation; a palms-down gesture says, "I'm in charge," and is likely to cut your kid off-or even rub her the wrong way.
Also, make eye contact-give your child eye contact 100 percent of the time while she's speaking, and look at her about half the time while you're speaking, Hogan adds. This is the right amount of eye contact to enhance open communication.
You're trying to finish a project at work and your cube buddy won't stop talking. Sure, you can tell her you don't have time to gossip, but if she's not getting the message, try a more subtle but effective approach. "Do nothing," Givens says. "Don't respond in any kind of way. Don't tilt your head, don't give a smile and don't do anything with your shoulders. … Turn your head and body away from her." If she continues to chat, position your body away from her, cross your arms and avoid all eye contact.
Chances are she'll finally get the message-and even if she's miffed, you can still make your deadline and apologize later. (You can use the same approach with unwanted attention from strangers or salespeople; all but the most persistent will pick up on these cues and move on.)
The key here is to try to stay relaxed. Becoming tense will show in your body and the other person is likely to notice it and become even more hostile. Keep your body relaxed and try to maintain a welcoming appearance with an interested look on your face, says Hogan. Clenching your jaw, gritting your teeth or grimacing is a clear sign of anger and is likely to escalate the situation.
Pay attention to what the person is saying, using eye contact 100 percent of the time the other person is speaking, and 50 percent of the time when you're talking. When you break eye contact, look down, not away or up, which may be interpreted negatively. By appearing relaxed, even neutral, you'll likely disarm much of the other person's anger.
So you're giving a presentation to a group at work. First, remember how important eye contact is, especially in a group. "Try to look at each person in the room," says Givens. "We are very attuned to not being looked at if someone is looking at other people and not looking at you. ... For a good presentation, go around the room systematically and make sure you establish eye contact with all of your listeners."
To appear confident, don't overdo the smiling. "Use a smile appropriately-like at the end of a sentence or if someone has said something that's really interesting," says Givens. "Smile to acknowledge something rather than leave a smile on your face constantly, which can be interpreted as foolish or a little overdone." Use hand gestures to emphasize major points, but keep your hands away from your hair and face.
All right, so you're not really going out of town that weekend; you just don't want to go to your boss's pool party. If you're going to fib, act as normal as possible-and keep your hands away from your face. "Self-touching tends to go up a little bit with deception. … It's a way of relieving stress," Givens says.
People also tend to cover their mouth with a hand when they lie, as if "covering" the fib, so keep your hands relaxed at your sides if you're going to tell a little white one. And pay attention to your feet-if you're anxious, irritated or bored, you may move, tap or shift your feet without realizing it. Researchers call this "leakage," which refers to your body revealing your real feelings even while your words may convey the opposite.
You lined up the sitter, slipped into something special and even took extra time with your makeup. Now how do you connect with your husband or beau on date night? "Dressing up" does more than make you feel attractive; it's a nonverbal signal that spending time with him is important to you.
Keeping an open body posture and aligning your body with his shows that you want to connect, as does a soft smile and maintaining eye contact when he is talking. Touching your hair or fiddling with your jewelry is considered "preening" behavior and will let him know, whether he's consciously aware of it or not, that you find him attractive. Touching him occasionally, which draws you closer physically, will show him that you want to connect with him. The more you touch someone, the more interested in him you are.
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.