Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Background principles

There is one basic rule that you can usually count on – the body and the mind go together. Not rocket science, is it?

Of course, we all know that our minds tell our bodies what to do, sending the correct brain signals to the appropriate muscles and so on. And most of this is unconscious. Can you imagine how much time you’d waste if you had to think of telling yourself ‘Breathe!’ continually?

So, the upshot of this is that most of the body language we display towards others is unconscious on our part – and they also notice and interpret it mostly unconsciously.

Problems tend to arise when one, some or all of the following things occur:

  • We give off signals which someone interprets, either correctly or incorrectly, in a negative way that causes them to feel closed out, which in turn can cause them to react negatively
  • We interpret someone else’s body language as negative and therefore react negatively
  • We don’t know how to redirect and re-establish a positive equilibrium to the situation once it arises
  • We refuse to act on what we know about redirecting a potentially negative situation for a better outcome.
Key tip

Mental attitude is the single most important aspect to address when ensuring your body language conveys certain messages. In the same way that actors ‘get into their character’ mentally in order to portray the evildoer, the ingénue, the troubled teen or the conflicted cop with authenticity, so we must focus on having the right mental attitude for communicating well!

Context, congruence and clusters

If you wish to interpret someone’s body language with any accuracy, it is essential to take the following into account:

  • Context – if someone’s arms are crossed in front of them during your conversation, is that due to their feeling defensive or do they just feel cold?
  • Congruence – do the person’s facial expressions and body movements/positioning reflect their words?
  • Clusters – is the person displaying more than one type of body language that suggests the same thing? In other words, arms crossed, legs crossed and head down together with lack of eye contact could indicate defensiveness, or some other relatively negative mindset, such as annoyance, anger or lack of confidence. Even so, we would need to take the context into consideration to be sure. (Only one of the signals alone would not be such a clear indication of a negative mental attitude; however, it would still bear investigation.)

Take, for example, open body language, which in the traditional sense means having hands open, arms not crossed in front of the body, or not hidden behind a desk, and legs uncrossed. Natural open body language is best observed in children of up to five years or so – a child’s normal body positioning when in a happy state is a good example of totally open body language. Children stand and sit with straight little backs and relaxed but upright (not slumped) shoulders. They engage with their faces, have good eye contact, their voices are full of expression and their hands and arms are used freely to help them express and illustrate their many ideas. They only cross their arms and frown or pout when they are feeling unhappy in some way. (To a large extent, our body language as we grow older and become adults is just a variation of this.)

You’ll find that open body language happens naturally when you’re relaxed, open to others and in rapport with them, and open communication is taking place. However, in synergology, we have found that it is more helpful to notice the number of signs of openness as opposed to signs of closure: if someone has their arms folded in front of them this does not necessarily mean they are closed to us, because they could be indicating openness in other ways!

Remember

Never assume you know what someone is really thinking from their body language – the best way to understand what someone is really thinking and feeling is to build rapport and trust with them by showing sincere interest, asking open questions about their opinions, thoughts and concerns, and really engaging with them.