Though so much is written about how to perfect your business writing skills—resumes, cover letters, thank-you notes—the art of not talking is still one of the most powerful tools in your career. Think of how important and communicative body language is: Judd Nelson raising his fist in teenage defiance at the end of The Breakfast Club, Hillary Clinton’s hands on her face as she watched Seal Team Six take down Osama bin Laden on a live feed, Tommy Lee Jones’ unchanging grimace at the Golden Globes.
A one-handed motion or raised eyebrow can convey paragraphs. Body language can be an extremely effective tool—hello, Beyonce—but it can also paint you in a very negative light. There are certain gestures, like a slight head tilt, that you may not even be aware you’re doing that are hurting your career. Levo talked with Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead ($15, amazon.com), about these body language traps and how to avoid them.
TRAP #1: Using too many head tilts.
There was a great episode of Friends where Phoebe and Monica tilted their heads as they asked the just-divorced Richard Burke how he was. He said, noting their tilted heads, “Well, you clearly heard about my divorce.” Watch below:
The head tilt signifies sympathy and active listening. Goman also points out that this is a particularly feminine gesture. She says, “As such, head tilts can be very positive cues, but they’re also subconsciously processed as submission signals. Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks as a way to show deference to the dominant animal.”
TIP: Use a head tilt when you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team, or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they’re saying. But when you need to project power and authority, keep your head straight up in a more neutral position.
TRAP #2: Physically condensing.
Goman says women tend to condense their bodies, keeping their elbows to their sides, tightly crossing their legs, stacking their things in small, neat piles, and contracting themselves to take up as little space as possible. She points out that high-status males do the opposite. We would probably never see Donald Trump trying to make sure his work area was super neat. Men tend to expand into available space and take up room.
TIP: Goman says, “Remember that status and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through height and space. So stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance, and hold your head high.” Goman is not saying to stretch and put your feet on the desk but to sit up, take your stuff and spread it all over the table like a dog marking its territory.
TRAP #3: Using girlish gestures.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been guilty of twirling your hair, playing with your earrings or necklace, or just flip-flopping your hands back and forth. If you ever want to know what absolutely not to do when it comes to making gestures that connote insecurity, watch any interview or acceptance speech made by Kristen Stewart. Here’s a good one:
TIP: Goman’s tip is to keep your hands in your lap or on the conference table where they can be seen and where you will be reminded to keep them still. And when you do use gestures, notice if they’re reinforcing your statements. If so, you’re probably showing your palms when indicating openness and inclusiveness, “steepling”—fingertips touching, palms separated—when being precise, and turning your hands palms down when you are absolutely sure of your position.
TRAP #4: Smiling excessively.
A smile can get you a lot of things: compliments, improvements in health, a free dental consultation… But there’s a point where it can get to be too much. Goman says excessive or inappropriate smiling can be confusing and rob you of your credibility. This is especially noticeable if you over-smile while discussing a sensitive subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.
TIP: Employed at the right times—for example, during an initial meeting with a potential business client—smiling can be one of the most powerful and positive nonverbal cues, especially potent for signaling likability and friendliness. But when the subject turns serious, you need to sport your serious face.
TRAP #5: Nodding too much.
This puts us back in head tilt territory. For men and women, nodding means different things. When a man nods, he says he firmly agrees. When a woman does it, she’s saying, “I’m listening, I’m empathizing; please keep talking.” But this can quickly become excessive.
TIP: Goman says constant head-nodding can express encouragement and engagement but not authority and power. To project authority, especially when stating your opinion, keep your head still. You don’t want to look like a bobblehead.
TRAP #6: Flirtatious behavior.
You’ve probably heard so many different things about flirting in the office, but for the most part you probably want to stay away from it. Especially considering when women flirt, they do those girly signals (mentioned above) that tend to connote femininity instead of power. Laura Kray studied the impact of flirting on negotiations and explained to The Daily Mail that “although flirtation appears to be positively related to women’s likability, negotiators who flirted were judged to be less authentic than those who refrained from exercising their sexual power.”
TIP: Flirting can be fun and exciting, but in business it’s better to come across as competent and professional, says Goman.
TRAP #7: Being emotionally over-expressive.
I’m one-quarter Italian and grew up with a drama teacher for a mother and an actress for a sister, so talking with your hands was very much the norm in my house. I didn’t realize I was doing it until people started commenting on it. I thought it was charming, but apparently it signifies that you’re wishy-washy. There was even an episode of Ally McBeal in which Ally’s co-council John Cage advised her to limit her tendency to swish her hands back and forth because it distracted the jury and made her seem less decided during her argument. Goman says that while a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who visibly express their emotions with hand gestures that rise above their shoulders can quickly overwhelm an audience—especially if that audience is comprised primarily of males.
TIP: To engage and motivate people, an emotional presentation can be very effective. But in situations where you want to maximize your authority, you’ll need to minimize your movements and keep your gestures about waist high. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.
TRAP #8: Having a delicate handshake.
Helen Keller once said, “I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake.” A handshake can say a lot about a person, so you need to make it a good one. Women in business are judged very harshly on their handshakes. Even more than their male counterparts, women with weak handshakes are judged to be passive and less confident, Goman says.
TIP: Goman recommends taking the time to cultivate your “professional shake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person, facing her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of you hand—the skin between your thumb and first finger—touches the web of the other person’s. Look your partner in the eye, smile—this is one place where a smile is a business asset—and greet the person warmly. Most of all, remember to shake hands firmly.
Sign up for The Weekly Slice: Your guide to top stories, jobs, and videos.
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images