Soft skills: 10 body language tips for leaders

March 18, 2019 -

With more than 50 million views, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses offers an eye-opening example of the power of soft skills. In it, as well as in her follow-up book on body-mind effects, Cuddy talks about how small tweaks in body language can have a big impact on how people view others – and how they view themselves.

Unfortunately, leaders can’t master the art of nonverbal communication with a two-minute Wonder Woman pose alone. Like other soft skills, body language improvement takes continual practice.

“Body language is one of the most important ways that we communicate with others, yet it is probably the skill that receives the least amount of attention by individuals,” says Anne Baum, author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed. “It is critically important to consider your body language as it sends nonverbal cues that can undermine the words that are being said.”

Leaders have even more incentive to work on this skill, says Leila Bulling Towne, executive coach at The Bulling Towne Group, LLC. “As your title gets bigger, you are usually physically more removed from people and the general workings of the company or office,” she explains. “You might be in a suite of offices or on a specific floor. People see you less. When your team, or those reporting into your function, do see you, how you move your hands and body and what you do with your eyes (or not) makes a bigger impact than you realize. Since they don’t observe you as often, when they do, they scrutinize your words and actions.” 

We asked leaders, executive coaches, and body language pros for practical tips and advice. Read on to learn how to make your non-verbal communication work for you – not against you. We’ll close with how to evaluate your own body language.

1. Decide what you want to convey

Edward Schiappa, professor of comparative media studies at MIT and lead instructor of MIT’s upcoming Persuasive Communications Bootcamp: “Almost everything we do – how we walk, talk, gesture, look at people, shake hands, sit down, arrange our office, dress, wear our hair, etc. – communicates something about who we are. So the first crucial step for leaders to consider is: Who is the ‘I’ that I present to my peers and teams? Am I conveying the qualities that I want to convey?

“Think about how we communicate trustworthiness: Good eye contact, showing respect and trust of one’s peers or team members, demonstrating support in conversation non-verbally. It matters literally if you lean forward or lean back in a chair – one conveys interest and involvement, one begins to imply distance. So how you physically comport yourself can make an enormous difference. In short, the mistake to avoid is adopting body language that is out of sync with behavior that defines the leader you want to be.”

2. Stay authentic

Elizabeth Gilbert, researcher, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, match your non-verbal communication to both your audience and yourself. Communication is a social experience, so when working on your body language, consider whom you are speaking with and what you want to convey. For example, if you want to be authoritative, use expansive body language (think ‘manspreading’) and big gestures. If you want to be friendly and put others at ease, consider using subtler gestures and taking up less physical space.

“At the same time, your non-verbal communication should feel comfortable to you. This is not to say you can’t improve your non-verbal communication – you can and should practice new habits like physically leaning in, power posing, using matching hand gestures, etc. However, if you constantly pretend to be a loud, super-expressive extrovert when you’re really a more reserved introvert (or vice versa), this can be bad for your well-being. It may also come across as unauthentic. So consider how to match your non-verbal behavior to your true self.”

3. Find balance between open and closed body language

Kyle M.K., leadership consultant and author of The Economics of Emotion: “Managers can go too far on either side of the spectrum. They can be too open and eager with their body language, which often makes teams and employees uncomfortable. For instance, a power pose can make leaders more confident presenters, but in certain circumstances (such as when you’re the most influential person in the room), it can be seen as arrogance.

“Or they can be too closed off, which will lead team members to believe their manager doesn’t care. Leaders who keep their head down are often assumed to be meek or doubtful, so any decision they make would make the team feel unsure. The right thing to do here is to be relaxed and conscious of what message you’re sending with your body language.”

4. Show that you are listening

Jeffrey Davis, executive speech coach, Speak Clear Communications: “It’s important for executives to convey to co-workers that they are in the moment and listening. Simple things help: Sit up, keep eye contact, use open movements while gesturing, and keep your fingertips lightly touching while resting your hands. Listening, relating, connecting emotionally – these are the values to express with your non-verbal communication. I would stay away from any gesture or movement that contradicts these values, such as crossed arms or slouchy spinal alignment.”

5. Eye contact builds trust

Anne Baum, author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed: “Eye contact is incredibly important as a leader. Looking your team members directly in the eye and listening to hear (not just to answer) builds trust between a leader and their team members. When a leader is looking around and not focusing on the team, the leader seems distracted or insincere. This destroys trust, and it doesn’t matter what words are being said.”

6. Keep your hands open 

Erica B. McCurdy, certified master coach and strategy consultant, McCurdy Strategy Group: “Keep your hands open. Surprisingly, closing your fists or clenching your hands not only increases the tension in your body, but also the tension in the way you present yourself to others. Great leaders are open to ideas and are receptive to the people around them. You cannot stay open if your body and mind are closed off. Opening your hands is a physical way of reminding yourself to stay open-minded in your meetings, presentations, and negotiations.

“Also, keep your hands off your face. While this advice shouldn’t have to be told to anyone past elementary school, you’d be surprised how often people forget to keep their hands off their faces during meetings. The element of disgust is super powerful – so powerful that it can override almost any other feeling that takes place in a meeting. So keep your hands down and your head up.”

7. Limit distractions that pull your focus away

Dr. Ariane Machin, psychology professor at Purdue University Global and co-founder of Conscious Coaching Collective: “Pay attention to the person you are speaking with. It sounds basic, but with our many distractions (phone, text messages, tones that are coming from our computer or phones, etc.), we have never been more distracted as a culture. Your tone of voice is also something to pay attention to. Are you speaking with a confident, authoritative tone, or are you saying ‘um’ and hesitating with the words you are using? These will all be cues to the person you are interacting with.”

8. Try mirroring in one-on-one interactions

Andres Lares, managing partner, Shapiro Negotiations Institute: “It’s less about what you do and more about being cognizant. Just like you might pick the right keywords for a big speech, it’s important to be as intentional about your body language, especially for sensitive or critical presentations, one-on-one meetings, etc.

“Consider mirroring. Next time you are talking to someone one-on-one, notice if they slant their head, if they speak quickly or slowly, how close or far they are from you, their posture, etc., and if possible, see if you can slowly replicate it. Do this only if you feel comfortable and it’s not ridiculous. You will find that the other side feels more comfortable with you. It’s the equivalent of them asking where you are from and you saying the same state – a nice ice-breaker and connection point.”

9. Show empathy

Vijay J. Marolia, chief investment officer, Regal Point Capital: “I believe posture and tone (of voice) are critically important. If either comes off too harsh, the listener(s) may automatically go into a defensive mindset, lessening the impact of the intended message. The right tone, accompanied by the right posture (one showing empathy), can cure the most uncomfortable conversations.

“A big mistake leaders make is appearing distracted or disinterested when approached. Although leaders are busy, their employees are people, and people have feelings, baggage, hopes, and concerns. Leaders should convey empathy and understanding – even in the most hectic of times – and body language is one way they can do so.”

10. Beware scanning the room – and giving the OK

Leila Bulling Towne, executive coach, The Bulling Towne Group, LLC: “Eye contact seems simple, but it can be tricky – even for leaders with decades of experience. True eye contact means you are looking at a person and sustaining that contact for five to seven seconds. Looking at people for just a second or two is not eye contact. ‘Scanning’ the room sends a message that you are searching for someone better to connect with. So those who receive just a glance or two feel they are not important.

“Gestures are also tricky. Leaders want to use their hands to show emotion, to emphasize their words, yet they tend to fall back on a few well-worn gestures such as thumbs up, the OK sign, or making a circle with both hands to signify ‘global’ or ‘wide-reaching.’ These gestures feel immature and are ineffective, and using them outside the United States can even offend.”

How to evaluate your own body language

For leaders who want to start working on improving their own body language, Towne has some actionable advice: “Use the next week you are in the office to ask yourself these questions each day.” 

Eye contact: Are your eyes mostly on your laptop when you are in a meeting? Or looking down at your phone as you walk through the hallways or stand in the elevator? Who are the last three people you saw in the elevator or in the kitchen today? (Can’t remember? You probably weren’t looking at them – what does that convey?) Which people are you comfortable making eye contact with? Why? Why not with others?”

Body Language: “What are the first things you do when you enter a meeting? Open your laptop? Open a notebook? Wait for others to arrive? Play with your phone? Where are your hands during a meeting? When you speak, what are your hands doing? What is your relaxed hand position? What is your stressed hand position? Are you leaning forward or back? What is your listening posture? Arms crossed or down? How do you move your head during conversations? When you leave meetings to walk back to your office or to your next gathering, are you walking fast or slow? Is your phone in your hand or pocket/purse/bag?”


Author: Carla Rudder

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