The role of body language in communication

Kirsty Craig Associates Recruitment Consultant
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The role of body language in communication

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We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘it’s not what you say but how you say it’, but is this just about tone or do your facial expressions and body language play a major part in the way someone interprets what you say? 

Perhaps the most well-known piece of research in this area is Professor Albert Mehrabian’s Elements of Personal Communication, in which he maintained that only 7% of communication was actually the spoken word. We deduce our feelings, attitudes and beliefs more from the speaker’s body language and tone. 

Think about someone writing a particular sentence in an email or a text and then think about the same sentence being said to you in a face to face meeting. How you deliver that sentence in regard to your body language can play a major part in firstly how it’s interpreted, and secondly what it is really saying about you.

So why should an awareness of this form part of any good Manager’s toolbox?  

Communication is everything!  How will you engage your staff on this journey? How will you give feedback and deliver Performance Management and reviews?  When Rachel delivers her Masterclass on Performance Management, she shares her experiences of Managers who have not quite got it right.  “A mixed message is just that…confusing, and above all, an opportunity to engage someone has been missed.  

An employee in one company I worked with came to see me just after her annual appraisal, and she was perplexed!  Although the words were positive, the tone of the person delivering it wasn’t and they never once smiled.  Sadly, she was unsure that her appraisal was a positive one and felt deflated.” 

It's a simple thing to do, but it’s important to ensure that your facial expression matches the message you want to convey.  Imagine being in a situation like a disciplinary hearing and the chairperson smiling throughout….quite the mixed message!   

Are you the Student or Master of body language?

According to body language experts, there are six functions of body language in communication: regulating, substituting, conflicting, moderating, complementing and repeating.

Regulating is used to keep pace on a conversation with non-verbal communications that indicate functions such as when someone is coming to the end of what they are saying. Understanding this type of body language in an interview or meeting, and recognising it means you are unlikely to either talk over someone or not pick up the flow of the conversation.

Substituting is an action we do when we are unable to use verbal communication to tell someone something. For example, when someone is talking too much, but you aren’t able to ask them to stop, you can use substitute body language like glancing away or not maintain eye contact. If someone is not holding your eye in a conversation that you are dominating – it may be time to stop talking and start listening!

Conflicting body language occurs when your verbal communication and body language are not saying the same thing. In an interview, you may be telling someone about all the qualities you have that make you perfect for the role, but you are conflicting this with body language by not holding someone’s eye. In situations where your verbal communication is saying one thing but your body language another, we tend to believe what the body is telling us.

Moderating body language tends to emphasise verbal communication. If you are talking about a particular item or object (maybe a presentation or a skill on your CV), pointing at it or using hand gestures towards it will emphasise what you are saying.

Complementing body language is when we use gestures and movements to support what we are saying. It can be as simple as nodding your head when you are verbally agreeing with someone. This type of body language can be used to confirm the authenticity in the words you are speaking.

Repeating body language is used when we want someone to listen and follow direction. Maybe you want someone to leave a room before you, by gesturing that they should walk in front of you while verbally communicating this reaffirms your request.

How many of these do you recognise or do already?
  • Communication Skills
  • People management
  • management development
  • Body Language

A true HR professional with over 28 years' industry experience, and a refreshing attitude to my industry that might surprise you!


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