Sometimes actions speak louder than words, as I wrote in my last blog post. While I agree with Albert Mehrabian’s theory that about 55% of what we communicate comes from body language, it’s also important to note that body language is highly subject to interpretation. All too often our non-verbal behavior may be misread, or we may misread the body language of others. That’s why, particularly in business, we ultimately have to use both our words and our body language to communicate clearly.
A perfect example is when the same physical gesture can mean different things to people, depending on their cultural background. (For instance, in some cultures, nodding one’s head means “yes.” In other cultures, it means “no.”) But cultural differences aside, body language can also be easily misunderstood because of our tendency to make assumptions. For example, if someone speaks to you with arms crossed, you may assume that they are closed off, or they are feeling defensive. But it’s also possible that the person might be cold, or not feeling well, or who knows, trying to hide a ketchup stain — anything is possible!
Just the other day, I experienced an odd moment of non-verbal communication confusion. I was approaching an intersection in my car. Because of the road construction that was going on, a policeman was guiding the traffic. He held his hand up as I approached, which I assumed meant to stop. But because he was also waving his hand sideways I wasn’t sure exactly where he wanted me to stop. After a bit of hesitation I came to a stop right at the intersection, in front of him. As soon as I did he walked up to the car, looking annoyed. He motioned me to lower the window (that part was very clear) so that we could talk. Our conversation went something like this.
He: “Didn’t you see me telling you to stop?
Me: “Yes. That’s why I stopped.”
He: “But didn’t you see me waving my hand back and forth?”
Me: “Yes, but I didn’t know what that meant.”
He: “Well, that meant to stop a few feet back from the intersection.”
The whole conversation felt slightly ridiculous, like bad dialogue in a comedy. But the policeman was totally serious, and I was totally confused. I honestly didn’t know what his waving hand meant and misunderstood his signal.
In business it’s also easy for people to misinterpret body language signals. It may not lead to the potential of a traffic ticket, but it can have a real impact on the outcome of your interaction. As “Same Day Translations’” blog post, 5 Body Language Signals You May Be Misinterpreting notes, it’s very easy to misinterpret the meaning behind many common gestures such as crossed arms, raised eyebrows, sideways glances, etc. So, in order to get your own messages across clearly, it’s important to try and match your body language with your words. Otherwise, as it says at Psychologia, a manager who stands with tightly folded arms but talks to his subordinates about how open he is to receiving suggestions will not be trusted. Whether he’s cold or hiding a ketchup stain won’t matter if his verbal messages contradict his body’s message.
To minimize the chances of being misunderstood, or of misunderstanding others, you really do need to be very self-aware. For example, in any business interaction try to keep in mind the following:
Don’t be quick to form an opinion about an interaction. Accept that people may not always be adept at matching their non-verbal and verbal communication.
If you don’t understand what someone means, because that person’s verbal and non-verbal communication seem contradictory, ask for clarification.
Be conscious of your own non-verbal behaviours in meetings and in the workplace in general. Analyse the signals you may be giving to others.
If my angry policeman applied the final idea above, our interaction might have been much more pleasant. He probably would have realized that a waving hand isn’t clear to every driver. Instead, he would simply have held up his hand firmly, maybe even mouthing the word “stop!” And I would have stopped without hesitation. In the end, it’s always better with non-verbal communication, to leave as little chance for misinterpretation as possible — particularly when the person on the receiving end of the communication is behind the wheel of a car!
Contact The Language Lab for more information on making sure your words — and actions — help you get your message across.