Though so much is written about how to perfect your business writing skills (resumes, cover letters, thank you notes), the art of not talking is still one of the most powerful tools in your career.
Think of how important and communicative body language is: Judd Nelson raising his fist in teenage defiance at the end of The Breakfast Club, Hillary Clinton’s hands on her face as she watched Seal Team Six take down Osama on a live feed, Tommy Lee Jones’ unchanging grimace at the Golden Globes.
In one hand motion or raised eyebrow you can convey paragraphs. Body language can be an extremely effective tool (hello Beyonce) but it can also paint you in a very negative light.
There are certain body language traps, like just a slight head tilt, that you may not even be aware that you are doing that are hurting your career. Dr Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead, talks about these traps.
These are the body language mistakes to avoid:
1. Using too many head tilts
There was a great episode of Friends where Phoebe and Monica tilted their head as they asked the just divorced Dr Richard Burke how he was. He said: “Well, you clearly heard about my divorce” because they tilted their head when they asked.
The head tilt signified that they were sympathetic and really trying to be listening and involved. Dr Goman also points out that this is a particularly feminine gesture. She said: “As such, head tilts can be very positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks, as a way to show deference to the dominant animal.)”
TIP: Use head tilts when you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying. But when you need to project power and authority, you should keep your head straight up in a more neutral position.
2. Being physically condensing
Dr Goman said women tend to condense their bodies, keeping their elbows to their sides, tightly crossing their legs, stacking their materials in small, neat piles, and contracting their bodies to take up as little space as possible. She points out that high status males do the opposite. Men tend to expand into available space and take up room.
TIP: Dr Goman said: “Remember that status and authority are non-verbally demonstrated through height and space. So stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance, and hold your head high.”
Dr Goman is not saying to stretch and put your feet up but to sit up, widen your stance, and take your stuff and spread it all over the table like a dog marking its turf.
3. Using girlish gestures
Raise your hand now if you were ever guilty of twirling your hair, playing with your earrings or necklace or just flip-flopping your hands back and forth. If you ever want to know what absolutely not to do when it comes to making gestures that connote insecurity or public speaking, or really just talking with human beings in general, watch any interview or acceptance speech made by Kristen Stewart.
TIP: Carol’s tip is to keep your hands on your lap or on the conference table where they can be seen and where you will be reminded to keep them still. And when you do use gestures, notice if they are reinforcing your statements. If so, you are probably showing your palms when indicating openness and inclusiveness, “steepling” (finger tips touching, palms separated) when being precise, and turning your hands palms-down when you are absolutely sure of your position.
4. Smiling excessively
A smile can get you a lot of things: compliments, improve your health, a free dental consultation, but there is a point where it can be too much. Dr Dr Goman said excessive or inappropriate smiling can be confusing and a credibility robber. This is especially noticeable if you over-smile while discussing a sensitive subject, expressing anger, or when giving negative feedback.
TIP: Employed at the right times (for example, during an initial meeting with a potential business client), smiling can be one of the most powerful and positive non-verbal cues, and especially potent for signaling likeability and friendliness. But when the subject turns serious, you need to sport your serious face.
5. Nodding too much
This kind of puts us back in head tilt territory. For men and women, nodding means different things. When a man nods, he says he firmly agrees. When a woman does it, she is saying, ‘I am listening, I am empathising, please keep talking.’ But this can quickly become excessive.
TIP: Dr Goman said constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power. To project authority, especially when stating your opinion, keep your head still. You don’t want to look like a bobble head.
6. Flirtatious behavior
We’ve heard so many different things about flirting in your career but, for the most part, you probably want to stay away from it. Especially considering when women flirt they do those girly signals (mentioned above) that tend to connote femininity instead of power.
Dr Laura Kray studied the impact of flirting on negotiations and explained to the Daily Mail that “although flirtation appears to be positively related to women’s likeability, negotiators who flirted were judged to be less authentic than those who refrained from exercising their sexual power.”
TIP: Flirting can be fun and exciting. But in business, it’s better to come across as competent and professional, said Dr Goman.
7. Being emotionally over-expressive
As someone who is a quarter Italian and also grew up with a drama teacher for a mother and an actress sister, talking with your hands was very much the norm in my house. I didn’t realise I was doing it until people started commenting on it. I thought this was charming but apparently it signifies a wishy-washiness.
Dr Goman said while a certain amount of movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who visibly express their emotions with hand gestures that rise above their shoulders can quickly overwhelm an audience (especially if that audience is comprised primarily of males).
TIP: To engage and motivate people, an emotional presentation can be very effective. But in situations where you want to maximise your authority, you’ll need to minimise your movements and keep your gestures about waist high. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.
8. Having a delicate handshake
Helen Keller once said: “I can feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake”. A handshake can say a lot about a person so you need to make it a good one. Women in business are judged very harshly on their handshakes. Even more than their male counterparts, women with a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident, Dr Goman said.
TIP: Dr Goman recommends taking the time to cultivate your ‘professional shake’. Keep your body squared off to the other person, facing him or her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of your hand (the skin between your thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person’s. Look your partner in the eyes, smile — this is one place where a smile is a business asset — and start to speak: “So good to meet you . . .” or whatever. Most of all, remember to shake hands firmly.
This article was written by Meredith Lepore and originally published on The Ladders.