Here’s my confession. I’ve always been an extreme introvert in a world that values the “Extrovert Ideal,” a world that expects people to conform to this ideal whether they are extroverts or not. Because of this, I have spent a lifetime working on my social skills and learning to act like an extrovert. I’ve gotten pretty good at it in short bursts, and have reached the point where sometimes I actually enjoy it.
(What is the “Extrovert Ideal,” you ask? A person who is outgoing, confident, socially savvy, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. These personality types are considered “smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends,” according to Susan Cain’s research in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)
In my quest to acquire the social skills extroverts come by naturally, and because I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice being an extrovert as a pastor’s wife and business owner, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to communicate well with other people and build solid relationships. (And I share what I’ve learned in my new book Mastering Social Skills.)
I just watched a great TED Talk about body language, so I thought in this post I’d share the talk as well as some of my “tricks of the trade.”
People Skills Language
Relationships are built on the ability to speak what I call “People Skills Language,” a “language” that includes a knowledge of social expectations as well as an understanding of appropriate body language, facial expression, space and touch, gestures and postures, rhythm and time, personal hygiene, self-awareness, self-calming, and self-management. Because your happiness and success in every area of life and every type of relationship—from home to school to the workplace—depends in large part on how well you are able to “speak” People Skills Language, the single most important thing you can do is learn to “speak” it to the best of your ability. This is especially true living in a culture that values and rewards the Extrovert Ideal.
The tricky part is that up to 93% of People Skills Language is non-verbal. Studies by Dr. Albert Mehrabian concluded that communication is 7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal and 55 percent visual. In other words, 93 percent of communication is “non-verbal.” Body language makes up 55% and tone of voice makes up 38% of the non-verbal communication that people perceive. Only 7% of our interactions with other people has to do with the actual words that are spoken. Although others have questioned Dr. Mehrabian’s percentages, his studies demonstrated that body language is a very important component of communication between people. And since relationships are built on communication, body language is a key component of a relationship.
There are many different books and instructional materials about understanding body language, but basically all body language can be divided into body messages of comfort and body messages of discomfort. Body language signals of comfort generally involve the person taking an “open” and relaxed position towards you with his body. Body language signals of discomfort generally involve the person taking a “closed” or “blocked” position towards you with his body. The photo above illustrates both a closed position and an open position while interacting with another person. The man is signaling with his body that he feels comfortable and wants to interact with the woman and she is signaling “No way!”
Comfort signals tell you that people are relaxed, happy, and open to interacting with you. People who are comfortable and interested in the interaction tend to lean towards you, move closer, keep their legs slightly apart, position their body towards you, turn their feet towards you, tilt their head or lean it on their hand, wear a slight smile on their face, make eye contact, and often, but not always, will touch you on the shoulder or on the knee (if you’re sitting) or give you a hug when they see you or when you leave.
Discomfort signals tell you that people are bored, disinterested, rushed, or just having a bad day. People who are uncomfortable interacting with you tend to touch or rub their neck, touch or rub their face, rub the palm of their hand on their leg like they are wiping something off their palm, cross or close their legs, avoid eye contact and keep glancing around the room or put their attention somewhere else (like on their cellphone), distance themselves from you, and turn their body and their feet away from you. They may also cross their arms or block their chest area in some way. An extreme discomfort signal is eye-rolling. Even slight eye-rolling indicates the person is resistant to interacting with you.
“Closed” and “open” body positions are also indications of the amount of power people feel they have in a certain situation. People who feel powerful tend to assume “open” or dominating positions with their bodies, while non-powerful people tend to assume “closed,” submissive postures. It is easy to watch two people interact and tell who is the more powerful person (or in charge) because their bodies will give it away.
Change your body position, change your emotions and chemistry
One of the interesting things about body language is that we can actually change our emotions by changing how we position our body. Researchers have found that if a person assumes the facial expression and body language of a particular emotion, it can cause the feeling of that emotion. For example, happiness is usually accompanied by a smile, an uplifted head looking forward, shoulders up and back, body openness, and energetic movements. One of the quickest and easiest ways to change from one emotional state to another is to assume the facial expression and body position of the desired state.
There is also evidence that assuming certain body positions not only changes your emotional state and how you are perceived by others but it also changes your body chemistry. Watch this interesting TED Talk about how assuming a “power” posture for just two minutes causes positive chemical changes in your body.
What do you think? Please share the important aspects of People Skills Language you’ve learned.