No Words Needed

By Dr. Emily O’Leary

No Words Needed
We all speak body language, the non-verbal cues that give away our inner feelings. And changing the message communicated by our gestures is easier than you think.

What do Wonder Woman and Usain Bolt have  in common? The answer is the “power pose”. The power pose, or “superwoman pose”, is standing with your hands on your hips and chin tilted upward. It has been thought this pose changes the way people see and act towards you, but power posing is only the beginning. Body language involves non-verbal signals such as hand gestures and facial expressions, or verbal signals such as the pitch and tone of your voice. For example, think about that steely look your mother used to give you when you did something wrong.

Body language has been used by humans for millions of years as a survival technique. Our ancestors relied on physiological changes such as the flushing of the face, grunting and facial and bodily reactions to communicate. Social scientists have spent a long time researching how we make judgements based on the movements of others and what that communicates. Psychologically, body language reflects our needs, feelings, thoughts and emotions. Children who are born blind use the same body language as those who became blind later in life. This suggests body language is hardwired and has developed as an essential survival technique – for example, the universal tendency to hunch when feeling threatened.

Can we “read” people?

Research suggests we are highly influenced by other people’s body language, and vice versa. Nalini Ambady, a professor from Stanford University, demonstrated how people can form accurate first impressions about others based only on fleeting observations of their non-verbal behaviour. In her seminal experiment in 1983, Ambady created 30-second silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never met the professors to assess them. Results showed scores from independent raters were similar to those from students who had spent an entire semester in their class. Even when clips were shortened to 10, six and two seconds, results were the same. This demonstrated that judgements made on the basis of brief observations of non-verbal behaviour can be accurate. A later study by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evaluated the risk of a surgeon being sued based on their tone of voice. Researchers found that surgeons whose tone conveyed less concern and more dominance during visits with surgical patients were more likely to have been sued than those who sounded less dominant and more concerned, suggesting that a person’s delivery is as important as their message. Expressions of dominance may suggest a lack of understanding while concern or anxiety in the voice is usually associated with empathy. Dominance coupled with a lack of anxiety in the voice may imply indifference and lead a patient to launch a malpractice suit when poor outcomes occur, explain researchers.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist from Harvard Business School, believes your body language shapes who you are. Her research showed that standing or sitting a certain way raises testosterone levels and lowers the stress hormone cortisol, which can affect how you do your job and may have an impact on your chance of success. Cuddy and her colleague posit that you can almost trick yourself into feeling more confident by adopting one of these “power poses” or certain behaviours. In her latest book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Cuddy describes four physical actions that can help you.

But here is where it gets interesting. As much as we need “power poses” and stances to convey confidence, additional research says warmth and empathy also play a major role, even in leadership roles. Professor Margarita Mayo and her colleagues from the IE Business School in Madrid have researched how women see themselves, how others perceive them and what influences their perceptions. More than 200 participants – engineers at a multinational software development company – were assessed online by their bosses and colleagues on competence and warmth. For male engineers, the results showed that confidence and competence went hand in hand. However, when women were seen as both warm and competent, they were seen as more confident, thus more influential. If women were not perceived as warm,
they did not have as much influence.

The key to leadership

Although there are many messages to be taken from this research, Mayo argues that one implication is, “if women are to succeed in leadership, encouraging them to be more confident is not enough. To get credit for having confidence and competence, women must go out of their way to be seen as warm.” Although there should not be a bias, there is. When it comes to succeeding in a leadership role, woman need confidence. But still in our culture women need to be seen as warm in order to be “seen as competent”. Joe Navarro, a former FBI interrogator and expert in body language analysis, estimates that as much as 80 per cent of our interaction with others is through non-verbal communication or body language. He says that observing how comfortable a person is in a particular context can give you clues as to how they feel. If you’re conducting a job interview and the applicant seems confident during the process then gets tense when you ask about punctuality, it may mean this has been an issue in previous employment and something to enquire about further. Navarro states that body language is not an exact science, but about making informed assumptions based on gestures and context – something to be aware of before making judgements too quickly.

Thanks in part to TV shows such as Lie to Me, we all would like the ability to walk into a room and say, “I see from that frown that you are thinking of getting a divorce?” – imagine the possibilities. But this is impossible, and this article comes with a caveat: although increasing our knowledge about body language is useful, we must be careful not to overanalyse. Most of us can intuitively get a “feel” for someone’s body language, but you cannot always infer much from a single gesture alone. Rather, an impression is formed from a cluster of gestures as well as the context. One example is, if you’re running late and you see your friend waiting, arms crossed and pacing with a frown – that interpretation is quite clear.

Communication theorist Dr Nick Morgan recently wrote about how misunderstandings around body language have become part of modern culture. Gestures such as crossing your arms don’t always mean you’re defensive – you could be cold, tired or a host of other things. Morgan says body language signals emotional intent, not specific meaning. When we’re hungry or impatient our bodies will signal those feelings. Learning to read body language is learning to understand other people’s intents, not their conscious thoughts. Placed in context this can convey good information about the intent of the other person. However, we will never be able to read minds based on behaviour; nor should we want to. The beauty of life is that we will never know everything. That is the point: life is a journey of discovery.

Amy Cuddy’s Steps to Success

1. Channel your inner Wonder Woman, or Usain Bolt, and keep your shoulders back and open.
2. Posture has a big impact on how other people perceive you. Keep your chin at eye level – don’t raise it so high you’re looking down at the other person. This will give you presence without appearing arrogant.
3. Keep feet grounded and shoulder width apart – don’t wrap your ankles. Breathe in a steady manner, slowing down the adrenalin. Your body will start to believe you are in a non-stressful situation, so
you’ll appear in control.
4. Slow down your speech and pause; give the other person time to speak.


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