The Art of Body Language

Article by:
Dr. Jan Onno Reiners, EO Speaker
Dr. Jan Onno Reiners
EO Speaker

As a top-executive coach, trainer and keynote speaker, Jan Onno advises many high-level European executives on leadership, presentation and communication issues. His diverse background includes a Cambridge PhD in biotechnology, seven years of high-level strategic management consulting and improvisational theatre. Jan Onno was a speaker at the 2007 EO Berlin University and can be reached at jan@jorhd.com.

Karen Walker, the gin-soaked millionaire and protagonist of the American television show, "Will & Grace," summed up a key problem of human understanding when she said: "Honey, I don’t look. I am looked at."

The pitfalls of human body language couldn’t be summed up more precisely. While our bodies are constantly sending out signals about the way we feel and think, the signals sent out by others most often fail to register on our radar screen— they are neither recognized nor interpreted consciously.

In fact, even those entrepreneurs who may not be particularly chatty people (like me early in the morning) are constantly, unknowingly sending out signals with their bodies. How you move, stand, sit, look, hold your head and hands— they’re all signs of who you are and how you’re feeling at the moment. In many respects, body language is how we emit our true feelings through action rather than words.

So how can an entrepreneur leverage this skill? I am often asked whether one can learn to control his or her body language, or even learn to "fake it." Yes, it is possible. There are people who excel in doing just that. They are called actors. You can recognize these types of people by muting your television (or by stuffing popcorn into your ears at the movies) and seeing if they’re able to convey their feelings and objectives by body language alone.

While we are not all actors, learning to control one’s body language is an art form that can be used in any business avenue. For example, this type of language can be advantageous when it comes to building business relationships, interviewing prospective employees and conducting sales. However, consciously controlling—or even slightly altering—one’s body language requires a lot of energy and attention. This means having less brain capacity left for other important tasks, like getting a message across or responding to outside signals.

There is another way, though, to work on body language. It doesn’t concern the "sending" part of the system, but rather fine-tuning the antennae which receive body language signals sent by others. It’s like learning to listen again, but this time with your eyes, and on a much deeper level. As a professional speaker, I practice this skill whenever I can. I make it a point to watch people and try to deduce how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. In doing this, I can better react to my audience and understand how to handle my messaging. It’s a remarkable skill to have as an entrepreneur!

I also frequently tape myself or others during training sessions. In this observing role, I constantly watch out for moments when things don’t "feel" right. When it comes to body language, our feelings are very good at interpreting what we are observing, much more than our analytical brain. Whenever something doesn’t feel right, it is likely that the body’s language and the words spoken are out of sync. As a result, the person in question loses his or her authenticity and appears disingenuous. When in doubt, I listen to the body language.

Ultimately, what I’ve come to realize is that instead of spending a lot of time and effort on "faking" my own body language, I try to enhance my attention to, and awareness of, the signals that other people are sending. This way, I will be more likely to recognize and respond to their true objectives. This makes me a stronger businessperson and a more attentive leader, and those are the true markings of a successful entrepreneur.

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