Last week we were introduced to the topic of Influence as an attribute of Extreme Leadership. I promised that we would later get into some specifics on ways to improve on our methods of positively influencing others. This week we will do that by looking at an often under-appreciated method of influence: body language. Body language makes up a significant portion of what others perceive in our communication and yet gets little attention compared to other forms of communication.
Anyone who has ever tried to get multiple children to give a genuine, natural smile for a portrait understands how crucial body language is to the way we communicate with and influence others. As Dad to the two teenagers currently in our home, I can assure you that they are masters at saying one thing verbally and communicating something entirely different with their posture, their eyes and their tone. The truth is that we adults aren’t much better.
I have mentioned before that my employees in my early days as a leader described me as intimidating and unapproachable. There were many behaviors that earned me those dubious labels but I was perhaps less aware of my body language than any other aspect. Even when I began to say the right things, I remained less aware of the impact of my body language. This was especially true in my marriage. Long after I began to say the right things to Amanda, my body language betrayed the fact that my authentic thoughts had not caught up to my words. Getting my body language to align with my words (integrity, anyone?) required an increased awareness that was only possible with practice and intentionality.
One of the simplest methods for improvement is to simply practice smiling. It is a universally positive signal that is worth adopting even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. This is often the case with people with more reserved personalities. I can remember several occasions where I was delivering a keynote speech or conducting a workshop and thought–based on body language–that some of the attendees either hated what I had to say or were bored out of their minds. Many of those same individuals went out of their way to find me afterwards to tell me how much they had enjoyed my material and how much it had helped them! I have gradually learned not to be shocked by this. People are generally not very aware of their body language and how negative it can be.
To make matters worse, our body-language awareness as a society is getting markedly worse with the increased use of personal electronic devices. As we are communicating more often with a digital audience for whom body language is truly meaningless, we are increasingly oblivious to those in close proximity to us, and the signal that we are sending to them is guaranteed to be lousy!
How is your body language awareness? Do you come across as friendly and approachable or intimidating–or detached, disgruntled or disinterested? Rate yourself 1-10 on your awareness in this area. Don’t be afraid to ask others who know you well what you are regularly projecting with your body language. It’s important to include input from others as you will probably find that you aren’t always sending the signals that you think you are.
By becoming increasingly aware of the non-verbal signals that we are sending, we can purposely improve the quality of those signals and, with them, the quality of our influence and leadership.