Posted by Robert Half on 21 September 2015
Great conversationalists converse with gestures and connect with their eyes.
In this era of communicating via emojis and messenger stickers, some of us have forgotten that not all visual languages are so easily deciphered. We look at breaking some of the bad habits we’ve formed due to our overuse of technology, and look to regain the lost art of body language for professionals.
The one thing that you need to know before we start is that reading body language goes both ways. Your conversation partner will also be reading your movements and gestures, just as you’re interpreting theirs. However, many people find it difficult to decipher these unspoken messages they are sending out, even during corporate communication in the digital age. For example:
1. You’re not comfortable with maintaining eye contact
Studies show that in this digital age, our attention spans are now shorter than ever. This is partly due to the instant gratification we get from short online video clips and the huge amount of content we consume daily. That’s why it can be a little jarring for tech addicts to come back to the real world and maintain decent eye contact during a face-to-face conversation. Being shifty-eyed reflects badly on you, and does no favours for your professional image.
One way to rectify this is to let your conversation partner’s eyes – or the general area around them – be the main focal point. If you need to look away, do it when you’re gesturing or nodding for emphasis; it draws the focus away so you won’t appear to be avoiding their gaze. And when speaking to a group of people like in a networking session, cycle through each person, holding eye contact for a few seconds before moving on.
On the other hand, if the person you’re speaking to appears to be distracted and always looking elsewhere, reconsider the line of conversation. Is he/she not engaged because this topic isn’t interesting, or are you taking too long to make a point? Looking away is a sign of disinterest, and it will only be advantageous for you if you can pick up on this fast enough and respond accordingly.
2. You don’t know when to stop talking
Those of us who communicate on messenger apps would be familiar with seeing the familiar “So-and-so is typing” or “…” indicator in chat. This feature was introduced to keep the conversation going, in the absence of chat etiquette at the time. In real life, many of us have developed the habit of simply rattling on and on, delivering the equivalent of a verbal wall of text. In real corporate communication in the digital age, nobody likes a boss or co-worker who won’t let you get a word in, but most people are too polite to interrupt.
Reading body language properly helps you understand when it’s time to stop talking. Nodding is an indication of agreement and is usually a signal to keep going. A subtly raised hand or finger indicates wanting to speak up. Finish your point quickly to let the other person say their piece. This point is especially pertinent when it comes to job interviews, as it might mean the difference between getting the job and gaining a bad reputation.
3. You don’t have much sense of personal space
Everyone’s idea of a comfortable distance differs from the next person. This is one of the easiest mistakes to make during communication. Although the concept of personal space doesn’t exist online, it’s important to take note of this when socialising or when interacting with associates or clients.
When reading body language in this case, look for signs of tension. Leaning away, folded arms and hunched shoulders may indicate that you’re too close for comfort. Try to stand an arm’s length away when standing. If you’re stuck in a tight space such as a lift, angle yourself so you’re facing slightly away from them. Personal contact should be restricted to handshakes if the relationship is a professional one. Lastly, reading over a colleague’s shoulder or leaning over them to look at their screen is a definite no-no, unless you’re invited to do so.
The key takeaway point is to pay attention to the subtle cues of the people around you. A huge part of communication is non-verbal, and body language for professionals can help you understand your colleagues and clients better, and improve your interpersonal relationship skills.