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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California


The Sixth Signal: Body Language to Avoid

Friendship is a strong and habitual inclination in two persons to promote the good and happiness of one another.


Just as positive body language dramatically increases your "charm quotient," there are certain body positions that affect people in a negative way. Many poor listeners are guilty of them. You may inadvertently be using these undesirable positions yourself. If so, you will want to avoid these charm-busters in the future.

Poor listeners make the mistake of turning their heads toward a person when they are speaking, but allowing their body to be inclined away from the speaker. This suggests that you don't really care about what the person is saying, but you're pretending that you do.

Poor listeners sit with their legs crossed so that their top leg and knee points away from the speaker, thereby appearing to close themselves off to the message.

Another negative message that destroys any chance of your being charming is when you slump in your chair, as if you want to ooze through the back and get away from the speaker. One of the best ways to counter this negative tendency is to sit up straight and not allow your back to touch the back of the chair.

Often people make the mistake of folding their arms when they are listening. The speaker views this posture as a way of blocking out what she is saying. You can avoid this by making sure that your arms are unfolded and your hands are open, to signal honesty, sincerity, and genuine interest.

Observe the behavior of others. When you see one or more of these negative signals, the listener is telling you at an unconscious level that he is either not interested in what you are saying, or he is completely opposed to it. In personal relationships, especially at home, these contrary signals may indicate that the other person is agitated about something else and cannot pay attention to you until that issue is resolved.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA conducted a seminal study of communication some years ago and concluded that, in face-to-face conversation, your body language conveys 55 percent of the message you are sending. Your tone of voice conveys another 38 percent of the message, and the words themselves are responsible for only 7 percent. It is amazing how quickly others read your body language and draw conclusions about you, even if they are incorrect. That's why you must always be conscious of what you are saying by the way you position your body in conversation.

It turns out that women are vastly more sensitive to body language than are men. Research shows that a woman can join a social gathering of fifty couples and assess the state of each of their relationships within about ten minutes of entering the room. A man could spend hours in the same room and have no idea what was happening in the relationships of the other couples.

Controlling What Your Body Says to Others

I once worked as an image coach with an attorney named Bruce who had been sent to me by his own attorney. It was a high-dollar lawsuit in which Bruce alleged that his new employers had fraudulently misrepresented themselves. He was to be deposed on video by a notably aggressive defense attorney. To check out how he would do on video, his attorney did some role-playing with him and questioned him as though he was actually being deposed. He recorded the result and then played it back. One look and he called me in.

I decided to make my own video. For that purpose, his attorney had supplied me with a list of questions that Bruce might face during questioning. When he arrived, I sat him down and set up my video camera. Then I role-played being the opposing counsel and cross-examined him. Without comment, I just ran through some of the questions to see how he might come across to the jury.

Then I played back the results for him to see. It was a real shock to him.

Bruce was a big, overweight man dressed in expensive but now tight-fitting clothes. There he was on the video monitor, slumped back in his chair, with his straining belly almost popping the buttons off his shirt. He rarely changed his position in any way -- he just slumped. Even as we talked he stayed slumped back away from the camera.

I played back my recording and said to him, "Let's be objective; if you were a member of the jury who didn't know this man, how would he come across to you?"

He was far from being a stupid man and tried to be truthful about his personal evaluation. "He looks a little overweight and perhaps a little too sure of himself. I don't think he would make a good impression."

He watched another minute or two of the video and said, "In fact, he would probably make a rather poor impression."

He turned and looked at me and said, "If you were a member of the jury how would he come across to you?"

Without hesitating I said, "Fat-cat lawyer, makes a lot of money, smug, arrogant, doesn't give a damn. They're all alike -- I'll show him!"

The point is that Bruce wasn't necessarily any of those things, but his body language and total demeanor created that impression. And that's how he would be judged. Something needed to be done.

We worked hard on delivery techniques. He lost a little weight (which enabled him to avoid straining his buttoned jacket), sat upright, softened his voice, and even leaned forward now and then as though he was eager to answer their questions. I was delighted to see him change from "The Fat Cat" to "The Gentle Giant." He won his case.

Sometimes people fold their arms or slump, simply because it's comfortable to do so. I know I do. When you're with people you should always be aware of signals that may create a negative impression and immediately change them. When you need to connect, when you want to be charming and persuasive, you must be in control of what your body is saying to make sure you are sending out all the right signals.

Your Tools for Charming Others

Be aware of your body language at home and at work. Consciously decide to send a positive message of warmth, concern, and involvement with the way you sit and stand.

Observe the body language of others to see what kind of messages they are sending. Turn down the volume on your television and try to ascertain what the different actors are thinking or saying.

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