Although plenty of ink has been spilled on how to improve your business writing skills (e.g., resumes, cover letters, and thank-you notes), the art of not talking is still one of the most powerful tools in your career arsenal. Remember how important 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 simple hand gesture or quirked eyebrow can communicate a lot in just a few seconds. Body language is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal, but it can also work against you if you’re not careful. You could be sabotaging your career by doing common, everyday gestures that you’re not even aware of. Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead ($15, amazon.com), discusses the various body language traps and how to avoid them in a conversation with Levo.
Trap #1: Having a Light Handshake.
The famous Helen Keller once said, “I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake.” The way you shake someone’s hand says a lot about your character, so make sure it is memorable – in a good way. Goman says that women face greater judgment over their handshakes in the business world than men. A weak handshake is often associated with passivity and a lack of confidence in female business professionals.
TIP: Goman lays out the importance of taking time to create your “professional shake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person, facing her directly. For proper handshaking, your palms should touch and the web of skin between your thumb and first finger, on one hand, should touch the corresponding web on the other person’s hand. Make sure to make eye contact and smile when meeting your partner; in business, a smile is always an asset. Greet the person warmly and, most importantly, don’t forget to shake their hand firmly.
Trap #2: Repetitive Head Tilts.
Do you remember the episode of Friends where Phoebe and Monica asked Richard how he was doing after his divorce by tilting their heads? He said, his voice sad and wistful, “I can see that you’ve heard about my divorce.”
According to Goman, the head tilt is a gesture of sympathy and active listening that is most commonly associated with women. She states, “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: A head tilt is an effective way to show your team members that you care about them and are interested in what they have to say. This gesture can also encourage people to share more information than they initially planned. To project power and authority, keep your head in a more neutral position.
Trap #3: Girlish Gestures Can Be Used to Communicate Effectively.
Anyone who has ever been caught twirling their hair, playing with their earrings or necklace, or just aimlessly flipping their hands back and forth knows the feeling. Kristen Stewart is the definition of someone who seems perpetually insecure, based on her gestures in interviews and speeches.
TIP: Goman’s best tip is to keep your hands resting in your lap or on the conference table where they can be easily seen. This will serve as a reminder for you to keep them still throughout the meeting. Whenever you use gestures, evaluate whether or not they support your words. When you show your palms, it indicates openness and inclusiveness. When you steeple your fingers while touching, it means you’re being precise. And when you turn your hands’ palms down, it signifies that you are confident in your position.
Trap #4: Physically Compress.
Goman observed that women typically make themselves small by keeping their elbows close to their sides, crossing their legs tightly, piling up their belongings neatly, and taking up as little space as possible. High-status males, such as Donald Trump, typically don’t invest time in making sure their work area is super neat. Men, more often than not, sprawl out and occupy additional space.
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 suggesting that you sit up straight, take your things, and spread them out on the table like a dog marking its territory.
Trap #5: Behavior Meant to Attract Someone Romantically.
Although you may have received mixed messages about flirting in the workplace, it is generally best to avoid it. When women flirt, they send out feminine signals instead of powerful ones. Laura Kray’s studies on the impact of flirting in negotiation led her to tell 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: According to Goman, while flirting might be fun in your personal life, it’s important to present a more competent and professional front when you’re doing business.
Trap #6: Smiling Too Much.
There’s no doubt that smiling has its benefits, but there comes a point where it can be too much. Goman believes that smiling too much, or at the wrong times, can make you seem insincere and damage your credibility. If you tend to over-smile, it will be more noticeable when discussing a sensitive subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.
TIP: Smiling at the right times, for example during an initial meeting with a potential business client can be one of the most powerful and positive nonverbal cues. It is especially potent for signaling likability and friendliness. But, when the subject turns serious, it is important to have a more serious expression.
Trap #7: Behaving or Speaking in an Overly Emotional Manner.
Being a quarter Italian and having grown up with both a drama teacher for a mother and an actress for a sister, in my house it was very normal to talk using hand gestures. I had no idea I was doing this until others began pointing it out. I thought it came across as charming, but apparently, it just makes me seem indecisive. In an episode of Ally McBeal, co-counsel John Cage told Ally to stop Moving her hands back and forth while she talked because it would distract the jury and make her look less confident in what she was saying. According to Goman, too much movement and animation can dissuade an audience, especially if that audience is mostly men. Women who gesture with their hands above their shoulders tend to come across as passionate and animated, but this could quickly turn into overwhelming the listener.
TIP: An emotional presentation can be an excellent way to engage and motivate people. To exude authority, it is best to keep your movements and gestures confined around waist level. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.
Trap #8: Excessive Nodding.
This is confusing. For men and women, nodding has different implications. When a man nods, it signifies that he agrees wholeheartedly. When a woman excessively nods her head while listening, she might come across as saying, “I’m empathizing; please keep talking.”
TIP: According to Goman, excessive head nodding can depict encouragement and engagement but not authority or power. To appear more authoritative, especially when voicing your opinion, keep your head still. You don’t want to look like a bobblehead doll.