Our bodies send out a continuous stream of signals. Even silence can be loaded with unspoken meanings as we listen with our eyes as much as our ears. This is why the words we speak are not always as effective or influential as we think.
In a study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor of Psychology at UCLA, the words that people spoke contributed to just 7% of the impact or effectiveness in trying to influence people’s attitudes.
Voice: loudness, softness, tone, tempo and inflection
Vocal features accounted for 38% of the impact.
Body movement: posture, eye contact and facial expression
Body language combined with overall appearance contributed 55% of the impact of communication.
For effective listening, we need to learn how to spot any underlying conflict, boredom or discomfort. We should also be aware of what we are saying with our posture and reduce any negative effects.
Our eyes are probably the best signal of how we are getting on with someone. We look at people’s eyes and faces to show we are listening or to get feedback on what we are saying. If someone maintains eye contact while we are speaking, it signals interest.
In conversation, listeners look more at the speaker than vice versa. Listeners are searching for clues that support or contradict the speaker’s words. Are they lying? Are they serious? People also look at each other more in cooperative relationships, less if the relationship is tense or cold.
People who are lying eventually avert their eyes or look down. Some people can maintain their gaze when telling a lie but they usually overdo it and can reveal their dishonesty that way.
Facial expression and body movements
Most facial expressions last about one second. Some can only be caught by the most alert observer, but most of us react to facial expressions intuitively, even if we can’t explain what caused us to react that way.
When people like each other or are in agreement, their bodies tend to move at the same time or speed or in the same way. They tend to lean forward or backward at the same time; they use similar motions with their arms, legs and hands. When people don’t agree, their body movement is reversed and the listener may slightly turn away from the speaker. Feet and legs often reveal anxiety or even rage with tense postures or nervous leg jiggling.
Assuming a posture similar to people standing or sitting nearby reveals a desire to identify with them. In negotiations, people with sit closer to the table if they are pleased with progress and further from the table if the talks are either displeasing or frightening.
Understanding and controlling body language can be a powerful non-verbal communication tool in the workplace.
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