Body language and self-awareness

The Guardian’s Lynsey Thomas wrote a piece on body language on Saturday.

I started to notice the body language of the successful: the straight back, the easy manner in which they spout on about nothing in particular, all the while nodding at their management team and gathering trust as they went. And I came to wonder, which came first: the success, or the ability to exude success? Is there a training course or do these people simply emerge from the womb and declare “now there’s a process that I could streamline”?

Ah, back to the nature/nurture debate. Are these supremely confident people made or born?

Whatever the answer, Lynsey doesn’t think she has the knack.

I do not project accomplishment, leadership skills or power; at a push I would say I project mediocre capability. I have the manner of an eccentric academic who should have stayed in the laboratory and never been allowed to experience the bright lights of the boardroom. I was reminded of this recently while having an “offline” conversation.

There had been a minor altercation, hence the requirement for this corridor-based, straight-faced, frank discussion. Obviously I was in the right, being both a customer and, more importantly, a woman, but our body language suggested otherwise.  

Joking aside, though, have you ever found yourself in that situation? You know you are in the right, you even have the facts to back up your argument, but somehow, the other person seems to get you on the defensive.

He was at ease, having adopted the well-established pose of the over-confident, perching on the corner of a table, feet gently grazing the floor. His arms were outstretched, palms facing the heavens: conveying honesty and openness.

I, on the other hand, was backed against a wall, arms and ankles crossed, pulling a face that was halfway between a frown and a scowl. The look would only have been more complete had I been wearing a school uniform and had a fag* hanging from my lips.

The balance of power hung delicately in the air, ready to tip at any moment. And I knew at that point that although I could win this battle, armed with my trusty friends of fact and reason, he would always win the war. Because success is all about projecting success, whether it be through the body or use of language, and however hard I try I will never be able to exhibit that much control over my faculties.

Granted, it is difficult to command your body to project one set of feelings when it is actually experiencing the opposite. But it can help to understand why certain people cause you to react in a certain way. In this example, I would be interested to know whether all conflict situations cause Lynsey to feel as if she is back at school, or if only certain situations or types of people make her react this way. There are two people in this scenario. By concentrating only on how supremely confident her adversary is, Lynsey might overlook the part she has played in setting him up to be so confident.

It look me years, and no small amount of personal development, to realise that I contributed as much to my own failure in conflict situations as the person who I was ranged against. My responses when challenged were either to give way or, more often, to engage in full-scale combat. My reaction was more about my own mental picture of my perceived adversaries than about any power or abilities they posessed.

These days, because I understand more about how I react to certain people, I can choose to do something different – for example, to inquire further and find out what is behind the person’s aggression or anger. It’s not easy. Even when I do choose a different course, the knot in my stomach is still there and a little voice is saying, “Ah, just tell ’em to fuck off!” Keeping these instincts down takes a lot of effort.

You might find it difficult to control your body language but if you understand the sorts of people and situations that press your buttons, at least you have a fighting chance. You can go in prepared and have the time to choose a different course of action. Your hands might still shake and your palms might still sweat but a bit of self-awareness will give you enough advance warning to put on a calm, confident act. And perhaps that’s only what those self-assured types were doing all along.

* Note to American readers – a fag is British slang term for a cigarette.

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1 Response to Body language and self-awareness

  1. thrtysmthng says:

    “…..however hard I try I will never be able to exhibit that much control over my faculties.”
    How true.. and i have often experienced the opposite of the situation cited in the article. When i am trying to passionately extoll the virtues of a new plan, or explain a new idea, trying to get everyone excited, thinking that i am being animated when i use my arms to gesture and flush all pink and the voice takes on more vatiety in tone and pitch, i often encounter scowls and crossed arms.
    And at performance review times, i am told i am “aggressive” and “pushy” and “bulldoze people into following your plan”

    The first time over, it took me completely by surprise and the hurt lingered. But through a lot of self discipline and control, now i am able to reconcile to the fact that you are in effect the sum total of the impact you create on people, and therefore my animation is now much more controlled in the workplace. this however is not natural to me, and i have had to practice restraint quite a bit.

    “…Keeping these instincts down takes a lot of effort.”

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