>Is body language really that important?

>I’m developing a course on Building Positive Relationships. Part of the content for this is understanding how to read body language. Searching the interwebs for what others have to say on the topic is raising a lot of concerns for me.

I’m a student of psychology. So for me, understanding human behaviour is pinnacle to all that I do. It’s why I’m in training. I love being able to spot behaviours, interpret them, and respond accordingly. But this has taken time and a lot of training. I started when doing an ‘A’ level in psychology, then my undergrad, onto my postgrad and now the career path I’ve chosen. That’s 15 years of training. And I still don’t know if I’m as savvy about human behaviour as I might either expect to be or should be.
A google search on the topic of body language will present you with far more choice than you know what to deal with. So I’m adding to that mix a hopefully balanced representation of how an understanding of body language can aid your ability to develop relationships you have in whatever capacity you deem appropriate.
So where do we start? I guess let’s dismiss some myths first of all:
1) One piece of work oft cited is work carried out by Albert Mehrabian. His work is misrepresented as stating that 7% of what you say is important 38% of the tone of your voice is important and 55% of your body language communicates what is important. Trainers and communicators have been led astray with this fact. It refers specifically to a combination of the three elements accounting for our liking of a person who is communicating a message their feelings. That’s it. It has no bearing on any other type of communication.
2) Folded arms means defensiveness. Really? So when I’m walking around a room and I’m listening to a discussion that’s happening within a group and (importantly) I’m not taking part, I’m being defensive about it? Uh uh. No. That’s wrong. The key to understanding what the folded arms have to be met in context. Basics of this rest in the fact that if you’re having a difficult conversation with someone and they cross their arms at some point during the conversation it’s likely you’ve said something to put them on the back foot.
3) If your eyes look left you’re lying, if they look right you’re being truthful, if you look to the upper right you’re making things up, if you’re looking to the upper left you’re accessing memory. Jeez Louise. If you believe any of that, you’re being a mug and you deserve to be taken advantage of. Here’s a challenge to identify if it’s a science. Find the original piece of work this is based on or subsequent work that claims to validate these findings. I’ve looked. I’ve found nothing. I’ve found a lot of books claiming to teach you the success to body language. That’s not science.
And the science? Well the only person I trust in the field of body language is professor Paul Ekman http://www.paulekman.com. Why him? Well his work has been ground breaking in helping organisations such as the police force, immigration, national security, and negotiators to understand what signals they should be looking for that can either give them leverage in their situations, or provide them with context that someone may be about to act violently.
As an aside, a programme called ‘Lie to Me’ was developed based on his work – but don’t take the programme as science, it is entertainment after all.
So back to Paul Ekman. His work has identified that universally (although this was recently disputed) there are 6 common facial expressions that we all comprehend – happiness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise and sadness. It’s fair to say in Western society these expressions can be readily understood. How did he do this? He took images of a complete range of facial expressions and showed them to a tribal people who had little contact with the Western world. He found that with this tribe those 6 expressions were readily identified correctly each and every time over successive trials. We can (and appropriately) extrapolate that this is therefore true across all modern cultures.
If you want anecdotal evidence – look at how young children react to adults. Those basic expressions elicit from children predictable responses. Happiness encourages happiness, anger prompts defense, fear prompts uncertainty, sadness encourages sympathy, disgust provokes curiosity, and surprise elicits either laughter or fear of reaction.
But what about all this stuff about it being the crucial factor in how successful: your presentation will be, if you’ll get that job, how much someone is flirting with you, if you’ll win that pitch? This is where I start to get really cautious about what ‘experts’ are saying.
Body language is an important factor in how you are perceived by others, and how you respond to others. Being mindful of what behaviours others are displaying will enable you to either act differently yourself or encourage behaviour from others. But it’s only one factor. The preparation you do for an interview (for example), the research you’ve done, the way you answer questions, the rapport you build, your delivery of message, all these will be equally important in your success of your interview. All these factors need to be in ‘congruence’ or aligned in order for success to be given its best shot. None individually or collectively will guarantee success.
So where does this leave the topic of body language? My insight here is this. Be mindful of your body language, and others body language. It will often give you a clue about what the other person is likely to either feel or think. Whatever you think you have observed, always follow up with a confirmation or question about that observation. E.G. “Bob, the way you fold your arms when delivering your presentation gives the impression that you’re portraying an image of being in control. Are you anxious about the topic or the presentation in some way?” or “Bob, I’ve been observing for a while that you’ve not participated in this conversation and you seem to be quiet. Do you have something you want to add to this?”
The numerous websites making claims about what body language ‘really’ means aren’t lying to you. They’re just giving you a very biased, one sided view of the world. They’re not telling you to contextualise everything you are observing. As a psychologist that’s what helps me to understand pretty accurately what I’m observing.
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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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