The Contagious Nature of Body Language

How to Control the Room Without Saying a Word

Body language. In the world of sales it is huge. If you are a frequent presenter, you’ve likely learned the basics of how to hold yourself in front of a crowd, appear confident, and command attention. But are you paying attention to your body language?

The signals you send during a pitch, both on and off the court, send a message to your prospective clients. It’s your job to ensure that your unspoken communication emphasizes the spoken message you or your team are working so hard to deliver.

Neural Coupling

The science of neural coupling is a great place to begin illustrating the role of non-verbal communication in your life. Neural coupling (or mirroring) is considered by most researchers to be the mechanism at work behind human empathy—our ability to relate to the feelings and experiences of those with whom we interact. This is a good thing. It helps us form relationships and learn from one another. It occurs when we tell stories that let us share our common experiences, but also when we communicate non-verbally.

neural coupling illustration

Is this the “mirror” Justin Timberlake was singing about?
How Does Mirroring Work?

The simplest way to illustrate mirroring is to look at your everyday life. When a friend yawns, you yawn. If you see someone get smacked in the head with a football from ten feet away, you recoil as if it happened to you. Have you ever laughed because someone else was laughing, without even knowing what was funny? Or clapped, just because other people were clapping?

Neural coupling allows us to connect with each other on a more primitive level, and leads to mimicry in behavior and speech. Yawning, smiling, laughing, wincing—your brain is constantly mirroring others. This wonder of human biology is great for connecting with your clients, but you may also be inadvertently sabotaging yourself with these same principles.

Like It or Not, No Amount of Hand Washing Will Reduce the Contagions in Body Language

Emotions are contagious. As evidenced by mob behavior, or a room full of crying babies. You may think you are able to mask your mood, but your body language is probably expressing your emotional state no matter what you are saying. Your non-verbal cues, which make up between 60% and 93% of the message you send to others, actually influence their emotional state.

Interpretation of non-verbal communication comes from automatic, primitive cognition, so while you may consciously become aware of an emotional influence, the process in which you were influenced happened behind the scenes.

Dr. Wilson: What exactly did Cuddy tell you?
Dr. House: Nothing that your body language isn’t telling me right now. – House

In a study of theatergoers, the body language of the audience affected the performance of the actors. Audience members in uncomfortable seats fidgeted, sat awkwardly, and crossed their arms. This negatively impacted the actors’ performances, even though the expressed body language had nothing to do with the production itself. That’s our subconscious at work.

There are steps you can take, however, that put you in charge of this subliminal messaging.

What Not to Do

Woman in a meeting looking at her phone

Look at your phone: Congratulations! You’ve stolen a moment to glance at your phone, and saw that adorable string of heart emojis and smiley faces your girlfriend sent you. You also just told the entire room that they aren’t that important.

Avoid the urge to look at your phone during meetings and presentations. It pulls you and the audience out of the moment, and signals to everyone that what’s going on isn’t worth your undivided attention.

man crossing his arms

Cross your arms: Crossing your arms is the universal defensive body posture. We’ve all used it to send a signal, and the message is received loud and clear. Sure, sometimes we do it when there are no arm rests, other times when we are cold. But if you find yourself crossing your arms during a meeting or presentation, you need to uncross them. Period.

Woman hunched into a little ball

Make yourself smaller: There is no better way to tell others that you lack confidence than by making yourself small. This could mean sitting in a peripheral chair when there is room at the table, or relegating yourself to a tiny space with your materials neatly tucked in your lap. Not using the space allotted for you sends a subconscious message that you’re unsure of yourself. Those mirror neurons are hard at work, so others will also perceive you as apprehensive. Instead, use the science to your advantage. Go big.

Man rolling his eyes

Roll your eyes: Most teams spend a lot of time working closely together; especially when they are gearing up for a big presentation. It’s not uncommon for family dynamics to emerge. But remember, just because you roll your eyes when your sister says something disagreeable doesn’t mean that behavior is ok at work. Prior to a presentation, your body language will affect the mood and confidence of your coworkers. During a presentation, well… you might as well stand on the table and scream your frustrations at the top of your lungs, because everyone just heard what you said.

When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So You Know What Not to Do, but What Can You Do? 

Just as the body language of a theater audience affects the performance, the crowd at a presentation can affect the overall mood of the room. That, in turn, changes the client’s perception of your message.

When you are not presenting, you are part of the crowd, and you should adjust your non-verbal messages accordingly. Sit up, make eye contact, look interested, and stay engaged. Others will follow suit.

Research shows that people who experience the same emotions are likely to experience mutual trust and understanding. When falling into sync doesn’t happen naturally, use the following tips to make it happen.

Speak at the Same Pace

Having a one-on-one with a client? Talking faster than the other person can make them feel pressured. Try slowing your speech and speaking at the same rate.

Frankie Says Relax

Does your client seem tense? As you speak with them, try loosening your shoulders, keeping your head up, and using a normal speaking volume. Use this relaxed posture and tone to fill the room with your chill vibes.

Reflect Their Body Language Back to Them

This technique is a little bit trickier. You want to connect with the other person, not creep them out. If it’s not happening naturally, take note of their body language—how they sit, their facial expressions—wait about ten seconds, and do something similar.

The lapse in time will make it less obvious, but their subconscious will pick it up. Making the conscious effort to mirror them can get you in sync, cultivating a sense of understanding and trust.

Want to See if it is Working?

Not sure if the others are picking up what you’re putting down? It’s easy to test. Subtly introduce a new gesture that the other person hasn’t used during your encounter. If that gesture starts popping up in their body language, BINGO! You’ve done it.

What if I’m Having a Bad Day?

Your body language doesn’t just affect those around you, it affects how you perceive and present yourself. If you are having a bad day, take a few moments in an empty office (or bathroom stall) and hold the Wonder Woman/Superman pose for two minutes. Researchers have found that holding a “power pose” increases testosterone (the power hormone) by 20%, and decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) by 10%. But that’s not all. Holding a low-power pose decreases testosterone by 25% and increases cortisol by 15%. So, when you want to command respect and attention, do a little pre-game power pose prep.

Woman in suit and cape with hands on hips

Place your hands on your hips. Look like Superman, feel like Superman.

Woman standing with open body language at a desk

Stand at a desk, with open, confident posture.

Man with open confident body language

Put your arms behind your head, and your feet up.

And while you’re at it, avoid these postures when you are looking to up your confidence game.

Man in a suit, looking small in a tiny chair

Making yourself smaller sends the message that you lack confidence.

Woman turning her shoulders in and holding laptop in front of her body

Turning your shoulders in and holding items in front of you will not command respect. For more details on biology of body language, and how you can affect your own mood by using it, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.

Emotional, non-verbal communication is the original language of humanity, and it lends truth to adages including, “actions speak louder than words,” and “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.”

Our emotions are expressed through body language, a language we are hardwired to subconsciously pick up, understand, and mirror. Our primitive brain has a much larger impact on relationships, emotions, and trust than we may care to admit. So the next time you find yourself in a room with others, be present, hold your head high, and remember that you are speaking volumes, even when your mouth is shut.

2016-10-21T11:03:08-05:00 By |Categories: Communication, Presentations, Psychology|Tags: , , , , |