Over recent years, body language has become a trendy subject in the tabloid press. What a pity the more sensational articles aren't true!
How easy life would be if we could buy body-language dictionaries which would tell us what everyone was feeling and thinking about us deep down in their subconscious. Sadly, or perhaps it's just as well, body language does not reveal all our innermost secret thoughts, but that does not mean it is unimportant. Far from it.
Nor is it really a new subject. In fact, it has an authoritative scientific pedigree. Charles Darwin, discoverer of evolution, published a book titled The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. And Professor Michael Argyle, one of Britain's foremost social psychologists, has written: 'Human relationships are established, developed and maintained mainly by non-verbal signals, although of course words are also used ... We are only partly aware of non-verbal signals from others, we are hardly ever aware of the signals we are sending ourselves. These non-verbal signals constitute a silent language which, although they may be the more important aspect of an encounter, operate largely outside the focus of constant attention.'
Argyle's experiments have shown that non-verbal signals have about four-and-a-half times the effect of verbal ones; a leading Californian researcher, Albert Mehrabian, claims facial expressions are almost eight times as powerful as the words used; and Professor Ray Birdwhistell of the University of Louisville found that in face-to-face conversations two-thirds of the communication takes place non-verbally.
All these findings, though they differ in detail, prove that Argyle's 'silent language' plays a key role in human communication. And nowhere is this more true than in management, where we are often uncertain about whether we have understood each other fully - and need every clue we can get to help us ensure we are sending and receiving messages accurately.
During regular conversation, we look at each other, on average, for about a third of the time. To look less often or to look away conveys boredom and lack of interest - a tactic to be employed only when you intentionally want to make other people feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, to look at the other person more than average conveys enthusiasm and liking - a strong basis for motivating and encouraging people.
L ooking straight at people isn't, of course, the only form of body language. The palms of your hands are signals of honesty and showing them as you speak, for instance, emphasises the truthfulness of what you are saying. Moving your hands with the palm down adds authority, while closing your palm into a fist conveys anger and aggression. Palms are also involved in hand-shaking, and it is surprising how many executives proffer their hands limply and vaguely, which communicates weakness. Handshakes should be firm, without being vice-like. If you are in any doubt about your handshake, ask a close and honest friend about your own.
Beware of crossing your arms. This is usually defensive and often occurs when people are among strangers they are frightened of. But, if it is combined with leaning back, particularly when sitting, it shows superiority, even smug complacency. In contrast, leaning forward always shows interest and involvement - just watch the top TV interviewers.
Hand-to-face gestures can also say a lot. When people cover their mouths with their hands they are likely to be lying; touching the nose often means the same; scratching the neck can indicate doubt or uncertainty; rubbing the ear that the person feels he has heard enough; chin stroking is usually a prelude to making a decision; and putting fingers in the mouth, Professor Desmond Morris has noted, shows the person feels under pressure. Yes, many of these gestures may simply be the response to an itch, but if you watch carefully you will have no trouble differentiating physical from mental discomfort.
The most relaxing distance to stand away from someone when talking is just under two feet. Any further apart feels strained, while closer, particularly with the opposite sex, is threatening and can be used deliberately to create that effect. Basically, you must make sure verbal and non-verbal messages do not conflict. If you make a hostile statement in a friendly voice, the listener will discount the hostility and perceive the message to be friendly. (This was established by Professor Argyle and four colleagues in a 1970 study.) Alternatively, you can give bad news in a friendly way if you want to lessen the impact.
If you still doubt the usefulness of body language, think of the old silent movies. Remember the emotion Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other greats of the era conveyed without using a single word? But you won't learn to interpret people's body language accurately, and use your own to maximum effect, without working at it. If you consciously spend half an hour a day analysing people's subconscious movements, you'll soon learn how to do it - almost unconsciously.