A person in an organization or social situation cannot NOT communicate! Though one may decide to stop talking, it is impossible for you to stop behaving. Facial expressions, posture, gestures, and other bodily actions – provide an uninterrupted stream of information and constant source of cues to the thinking and feelings of a person. The gestures are numerous, and while some are deliberate there are some that are mostly unconscious. We all in one way or another send out messages to others. Thus, we all act out our state of being with nonverbal communications and body language.

Since much of interpersonal communication is nonverbal, the reading of body language is one of the most important skills of effective listening and communicating in our personal and work life interactions. The nonverbal elements of communication are especially important in understanding people’s feeling and thinking for our interactions and relationships with them. People often try to conceal their feelings by controlling their nonverbals. This is usually less successful than attempts at verbal camouflage. The feelings and emotions usually “leak” out through our efforts to regulate nonverbal expression. Understanding and reading body language is most essential for success of managers in their personal dealings with others within an organization and out side.

Today several guidelines are offered by experts to foster successful “reading” of body language. Among these are:

  • Focusing attention on the most helpful clues – facial expression, vocal expression, posture and gestures.

  • Reading nonverbals in the context of conscious and sub-conscious “actions”.

  • Noting discrepancies between verbal and body language.

  • Being aware of your own feelings and bodily reactions to communications.

Body language is sometimes very clear and unambiguous. At other times, however, it can be difficult to decipher. When you appropriately reflect on a person’s body language, communication can be improved significantly. In respect of this Psychotherapist Alexander Lowen says “No words are so clear as the language of body expression once one has learned to be able to read it.”

Language of feelings

While body language has been a source of interpersonal communication since ages, it is only of late that behavioral scientists have started making systematic study and observations on nonverbal meanings, particularly among the people in an organization.

Body language, or nonverbal communication, is said to be the language of feelings. Words cannot always describe the feelings people have, often words are not adequate to express what you see in the look on someone’s face at a given moment. Body language not only portrays a persons feelings, it also indicates how the person is coping with his or her emotions. When people position themselves at a distance from each other, tense their bodies, avoid facing each other and making eye contact, the relationship is probably not faring well. The averted face may mean an averted heart! Our approach to communication in an organization should stress on the primacy of feelings and behavior. Unquestionably the content of conversation and discussion can be very important.  However, when emotions are engaged they should normally receive primary attention for effective communication among people.

There are times when each of us uses words in ways to hide our feelings. Sometime these tendencies toward deception are buried in our subconscious and we are not even aware of our efforts to conceal. Similarly, each of us has learned to control our body language. Whether consciously or unconsciously we try to control the expression of emotions that are communicated through our nonverbals (body language). We may shrug our shoulders in feigned indifference when in fact the issue is very important to us. We may hide our anger with a false smile. We may distract our body movements to prevent crying or we may put a poker face to cover our emotions.

In other words, under certain circumstances and in varying degrees each one of us tries to mask our feelings with deceptive body language. We may be successful at choosing words to create a façade. But when we try to control nonverbals our bodies usually give out the truth about our feelings! Lie detectors are effective precisely because people who can concoct a very misleading story have a much more difficult time controlling their bodily responses. The observation of body language is important to be an effective manager and communicator because it gives out clues to what is most important in the interpersonal communications and relationships. In almost each and every situation, a person’s nonverbals usually indicate the person’s true feelings, as. In Sigmund Freud’s words “Self –betrayal oozes from all our pores.”

Reading body language

According to the wide research done on the subject, there are five ways which can help you become more effective in responding to body language of people – the language of feelings and behavior – in an organization.

First, you need to make a conscious effort to focus on the cues that are most helpful. The cues, if observed properly are plentiful. In the auditory channel – specific words that are spoken, the tone of voice, the rapidity of speech, the frequency and length of pauses, and how often the speech is disrupted with words like “aah” and “mmm”. In the visual channel – such as facial expressions, posture, gestures and actions. Greater sensitivity and concentration on these nonverbal elements of communication will usually facilitate better understanding in the two-way interaction and communication process.

Second, try and see each of the nonverbals in the right context. Much of the popular literature on body language suggests certain gestures can be counted on having specific and reliable meanings. In contrast authorities claim that no gesture, in and of itself, has a specific meaning. No single action ever stands alone. It is always part of a pattern, and it’s meaning is best understood in context of other body movements, as well as related to the person’s words. The goal of an effective communicator and manager, therefore, is to receive and understand cues from the “whole” person.

Third, note the incongruities, or discrepancies, when they exist. You have probably noted occasions when a person’s words communicate one message, but nonverbals suggested a very different meaning. The lyrics of an old song describe this aptly -- “Your lips tell me no, no. But there’s yes, yes, in your eyes!”  On the other hand, there are times when the body language is a smokescreen to hide the poignancy of words a person hardly dares to speak. For instance when a man shouts out to others that he is not angry, it may be that he does not want to admit these feelings to himself and/or others. When a person laughs as he tells someone of a personal failure it may mean that he wants to share this part of his life, but does not want to burden others. The point is that when there is a discrepancy between a person’s words and nonverbals (body language) it is helpful to search for meanings in each of the channels of communication for understanding the interactions.

Fourth, you need to heighten your awareness of your own feelings about the interaction or situation. Much of the unconscious mind can react upon that of another without passing the conscious. The nonverbal communications can bypass the communicator’s conscious mind and still trigger responses in the body. By keeping more aware of what your body is experiencing you can also be more sensitive to what other people are feeling.

And finally, you must try and reflect your understandings back to the other person for his or her confirmation or correction. In the process of verbalizing what you think the other may be feeling several things may be achieved.

  • You check on the accuracy of your assumption about the other’s feelings.

  • You may help the speaker become more aware of the feelings he is experiencing.

  • Your reflection encourages the other to speak about the feelings part of his situation.

  • When the speaker hears his feelings reflected back by an accepting listener he usually feels understood and responds emphatically.

  • Finally, if the person speaks freely of his feeling it brings about relief from tension, and an emotional renewal in him.

Body language in today’s organizational communications and interactions is quite a clear language. Popular figures of speech have developed in communications that coincide with the language of the body.  For instance, fearful people are said to be “frozen with terror.” Angry people sometimes “tremble with rage.” Reserved people are “standoffish.” Confident people are “bursting with energy.”  When trying to control their feelings people “keep a stiff upper lip.” The prominence of these clichés in our language suggests that we all have some expertise in reading body language. We can further improve on it. We can focus more attention on the other people’s body language and we can read it’s meaning more sensitively. We can feed our perceptions back to the other with greater skill and empathy.

For most people, body language may be a paradox. Sometimes nonverbals are so clear that nearly everyone can read them accurately. At other times, body language can be very difficult to decipher. People often interpret the meaning of the “silent language,” but when they do not bother to check out their interpretation, alienation or conflict may be generated needlessly. Though the paradox will doubtless remain, your increased attention to decoding nonverbals can today affect a significant improvment in your communication and interactions in the organization and your workplace.

Prof. Sushil Bahl

Summary points:

  • We all, in oneway or another, send out messages to others. We often act out our state of being with nonverbal body language.

  • In our organizational and workplace situation a person cannot NOT communicate with others. And body language is one such way. Study and understanding of body language is today vital for success in communication and interactions.

  • Understanding the nuances of body language helps the manager to understand people and be able to communicate better with them within and outside the organization.

  • The importance of this and some guidelines to study this are provided in the article for the reader.