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How body language can undermine your message

Karl Moore: This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty [at McGill University] Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am speaking to Mark Bowden, who is an actor that has been advising business managers for a number of years now on how to use body language more effectively.

Good afternoon, Mark.

Mark Bowden: Hi there.

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KM: Mark, how do managers use body language more effectively?

MB: I think that one of the things that they can do for sure is to make sure that they are giving off images that help people trust them. For example, I am talking to you now but I have my head tilted to one side, showing you my ear that shows actually that I am listening to you. That should mean that you start to mirror me, as you are doing. Your head is tilted to one side, and so I am actually causing you to listen to me more. I am giving you the image of listening and so you are listening more to me back. That gives you a sense that you can trust me because I am hearing you, although I just keep on talking. There is a sense there of me being a little bit manipulative, persuading and influencing you to listen to me more because I am giving the image that I am listening to you.

KM: How can we use gestures, for example, when it comes to effective body language?

MB: Let me show you this: When I drop my hands down by my side, which is what most people will do when they are talking to a large audience, you can see how something in my persona, maybe the light in my eyes, the energy in my body, has dropped. That is because when my hands go down by my side I start to take less oxygen into my lungs. I actually start to put myself, and my audience who are mirroring me, into quite a sleepy state.

One of the things you can do – well, you can do the opposite of that, which is actually to bring your hands up to the chest area. That is now increasing the amount of oxygen that is going into the blood, it is increasing the energy and you are getting something which is a little more exciting now, a little more motivational. So hands at the chest can motivate people more; when they drop down by the sides, you can see how instantly the energy drops from me. I actually start to think at a much slower rate. You can see that I personally start to stutter a little bit more and get lost for content.

KM: This is something where the audience reflects your energy level, or reflects how you are talking to them, and if you are speaking slowly with your arms dropped down to the side, their energy levels will start dropping as well.

MB: They just copy the leader. Your audience copies the leader. If you are speaking, if they are sleeping, it is because you are sleeping. If they are excited, it is because you are excited. If they are engaged, it is because you are engaged. If they are thinking in a certain way, it is because you are doing that and they will absolutely copy the way that you are thinking. And they know the way you are thinking because of the way that your body is held. You have got to give out really clear, strong images that help the audience copy you.

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Here is another example: If I start to talk to you now and I start to give a lot of gestures around my face, this gives you certain feelings about my content; maybe that I am holding elements of it back. How do you now start to feel about giving me content, about talking to me, interacting with me, when I have this kind of image with you? Say we are in a meeting together – do you feel compelled to give me information when I look like I am somebody who is holding elements of information back? What if I then start to open up with my gestures towards you? How much more compelled do you feel now to ask me questions, or to offer me information?

So, it is just this thing that you will copy me, I will copy you. If I start giving body language which is not useful, we are both going to escalate and spiral down into that area. If I start to use body language which is useful and builds more trust, you are more likely to spiral into a more trustworthy relationship with me.

KM: So you are saying that, at times, body language actually trumps the words that I am actually saying.

MB: Oh, for sure; for sure it trumps it. The words, the linguistics, are the spaghetti sauce. The spaghetti is what is happening with the body. Look, I can give you untrustworthy gestures and say, 'Look, you know Karl, you know that you can trust what I have been telling you here.' Now what if I give you trustworthy body language and say 'Karl, look, you know that you can trust what I have told you here.' What if I drop my hands down by my sides and say 'Karl, look, you know that you can trust what I have told you here.' The message is different, depending on where it is. Hands outstretched at chest height. 'Look, you know that you can trust what I have told you here.' The meaning is tending to come from the gesture, not necessarily from the linguistics. And if you see a difference between the gesture and the linguistics, you will tend to go with what the body was saying. So when I say 'Trust me' – gesture of hands on face, covering mouth and nose – or if I say, 'Trust me' – with hands down, off of face – which one do you want to go with? This one has more of a level of trust. You are more likely to think that is the truthful person. Does that make sense?

KM: Absolutely. Does this go back to, you know – we have the thinking rational line, but we also have the more ancient part of our brain which was great when we were out hunting animals and things like that, but we still have that in our thinking?

MB: You cannot get rid of it. The reptilian mind, the R-complex is probably about 500 million years old: Fish have it. So if we take that evolutionary idea as being absolutely correct, we still have that going on in our head. I can put on a suit and a tie, but it does not stop me from having a reptile brain that will again trump any of this logical stuff if it gets put under pressure. If you start putting people under pressure, they are probably going to go for that reptile mind.

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An example would be, and here is a great example of body language and the way that we interact with the world: If somebody is working at a desk, for example, and you come in behind them, that part of our mind knows to be wary of any shadows that come in from over the top. It comes from the days when we were reptiles and we were looking out for birds of prey. If we see a shadow, we instantly go 'Uh oh, problem, problem, problem, this could be an attack.' So, if you come in as the leader, as the manager, but you come in from behind me and cast a shadow, I am instantly alerted that there could be a problem. I am most likely to do a lizard-pressed gesture, where I start to puff out my chest and I start to look over my shoulder. I instantly get this feeling of 'All right, are you going to attack? What is happening here? I am bigger than you think I am.' Whatever you say now to me is just noise because I am under attack. You might as well go away for 10 minutes, come back again, approach me from the front so that I can see you coming and then you have not alerted my fight-and-flight system, which is part of this reptile brain.

KM: The flight and fight is going to get me aroused, it is going to get me stressed for a few moments, and that will pass. I can overcome it, but it is going to take me a moment or two to calm down?

MB: Ten minutes is pretty much the rule. You have got to go for 10 minutes. If we are having a conversation here and you say something that somehow sparks that aggressive system in me, I start getting aggressive and passionate up here. You start to copy me. Suddenly, Karl, you think that this is going to go nowhere because now we are arguing. What you need to do is break the conversation and say, 'Mark, I am just going to go away for 10 minutes. I am sorry; I need to stop the conversation there. Let me come back and let's talk about this a bit later.' You come back in 10 minutes; I will probably have forgotten what this was about because I was not in control of those emotions. You said something, you did something, and something happened that sparked that reptile off. You cannot logically stop it. In fact, when you try and logically stop it and you say 'Mark, don't be angry,' I just get angrier. You tell me 'No, no, no, don't,' I just get more angry. You need to accept me for a start and say 'I can see that you are getting quite angry, I am getting quite angry as well, so I am just going to go away for 10 minutes and then come back.' Ten minutes will sort it out.

KM: This is interesting because there is a sort of interesting parallel with obesity here in that our bodies are telling us to eat fat, winter is coming, and indeed, in Canada, the winter comes, but the fact is that the supermarkets have just as much food as always. Our bodies are saying to keep eating, which was great advice when winter came and there was less food, but today it is irrelevant but we are still hard-wired to see fat and think 'I should eat some of that.'

MB: Right, because you have that 500-million-year-old part of your brain which does not know that supermarkets exist. It does not know that we wear suits and ties and that you are not really going to kill me. But I might see images that might look like that; images that might look like aggression. You come and start to talk to me and make your chest very big, lift your throat area which is a sign that you do not think that you will attack me.

You start showing me those kind of gestures, I am either likely to back off – if I cannot back off far enough, I will have to come in and attack. If I fail at the attack, I will faint or take a sick day. I will find some way out of that situation. Here I am just giving you this kind of gesture at the moment. You know that I am acting this, but I bet that at the same time there is a part of your brain going 'Why is he being so arrogant about this?', yet you know that I am telling you that I am acting this. At the same time, in the back of the mind, you are going 'why is he being so arrogant about his content?'

KM: Mark, what you are saying then is that when we are communicating, we want to make sure our body language and what we are saying is absolutely in sync.

MB: Yes, absolutely. An example would be, if I were going to tell you 'Karl, it has been great; I love having this interview with you. It is fascinating talking with you about this,' my body language has got to be in sync. There is no point in me dropping those hands, going into this downward intonation that comes with the hands dropped and the low energy while saying that it has been fascinating talking to you Karl about this, we should really do this again some time. You just cannot see the correlation. At the same time, if I take the body language too big and say 'Karl, it has been fantastic talking about this. Fascinating,' maybe that could be too extreme.

KM: Right. Do men and women use body language in a different manner?

MB: We all pretty much actually have the same body language. There is some body language that women might use more than men, on average; but, on average, what I am interested in is, what is the body language that we all use a great deal of time. What are the archetypes? What are the fundamentals that we are communicating? That to me will cut through to really clear communication rather than going 'this person is a male, this one is a female and I have to treat them differently.'

KM: That is in the business context. In the context of young people in a bar, there might be a different idea, but that is about romance and not about business.

MB: Absolutely. Should you be talking about flirting signals, then they are different for male and female. On the whole, business is often trying to get that out of business because it causes conflict. In fact, some businesses have strict rules about that. It does not mean that those things are not going to creep in, though. Of course they do, and you see those for sure.

KM: This has been Karl Moore, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I have been speaking to Mark Bowden, who is an actor who works with business people on how to improve their use of body language.

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