The Secret Language of Success

by: Dianne Hales



D URING A PERFORMANCE REVIEW, a boss asks an employee if he has problems getting along with co-workers. “Absolutely not!” the employee replies, but he unconsciously nods yes. The boss frowns in concern. Why? “When people don’t know whether to believe what they’re hearing or what they’re seeing, they go with the body language —it tells the truth,” says management consultant Nancy Austin of Capitola, Calif. “You can play fast and loose with words, but it’s much more difficult to do that with gestures.”

A mother discovers that her two-year-old daughter has gotten into her makeup drawer and smeared eye shadow all over herself. “You are never to play with this again!” the mother declares, but she can’t resist smiling. The next day, the child makes a beeline to the makeup cache. To her, it’s as plain as the grin on her mother’s face that she just might get away with it. “Probably no one is better than a child at discerning the difference between what you say and what you really mean,” says Austin.

Every day, in hundreds of ordinary situations, actions speak far louder than words. “We talk with our vocal cords, but we communicate with our facial expressions, our tone of voice, our whole body,” says psychologist Paul Ekman, director of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. Understanding body language is one of the most practical skills you can develop. “When you can consciously ‘read’ what others are saying unconsciously,” says Marilyn Maple, an educator at the University of Florida, “you can deal with

issues— at work and at home— before they become problems.”


Most of the nonverbal communication at work centers on a single theme: power, which translates into status. The next time you go to a meeting, look around to see who has the highest status. In every species and society, those in control strive to appear large, strong and fearless. While gorillas may screech or thump their chests to assert dominance, humans have their own ways of signaling who’s in charge. “In our culture, status manifests itself subtly in a relaxed posture and way of interacting,” says Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at U.C.L.A. Conversely, those lower down the totem pole characteristically display more rigidity. “The classic example is the soldier standing at attention in the presence of a superior officer,” says Mehrabian. “His body is extremely tense and in perfect symmetry—signs of subservience.” The leaders in a group usually are the ones who lean back in their chairs, fold their arms behind their heads and put their feet up on the desk. To make a point, they lean forward. Their gestures are large and fluid, signaling an easy confidence and command of space.

Meanwhile, individuals who feel vulnerable may clasp their hands in front of them or fold their arms as if trying to make themselves less conspicuous. Slouching in their chairs, they touch themselves more—massaging the bridge of the nose, rubbing a finger over the lips, scratching a leg. “These are self-manipulative behaviors,” says Ekman. “Typically, they increase under stress.” The powerful also have prerogatives that underscore their status. One of them is touching others. “It’s an absolute no-no for someone to touch a superior,” observes Mehrabian. Yet a boss can invade a subordinate’s space and establish physical contact. An arm around the shoulders may show support. A pat on the back may symbolically put a person in his or her rightful (and lowly) place.

Superiors also take greater control of conversation. “The person who enjoys a higher position tends to talk more, speak louder and interrupt others,” says Mehrabian. The bodies of the powerful can also “leak” messages of weakness that invariably betray what they’re really feeling. Imagine this scene: the head of your company announces to his staff that the firm has been bought by a conglomerate. “This is great news!” he says. “The new owners are very impressed with our work. Your jobs are more secure than ever.” As he speaks, your boss stands stiffly behind a chair, his hands clasped in front of him. He smiles often, although his eyes have a serious look. His voice is flat, and the pitch seems higher than usual. Should you believe him? “Look for discrepancies between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing,” suggests Austin. Your boss’s body language is anything but reassuring.

Most people move less when they’re lying,” says Mehrabian. “Their movements and body positions become less fluid.” And if your boss smiles as he responds to one of your ideas, don’t assume you’ve won him over. Ekman, who says that smiles “are much more complicated than people realize,” has identified 18 distinctive smiles— most of them false. One of the most common in business situations is the “qualifier” smile, which superiors often use when rejecting an idea or criticizing an employee. In such a smile, the corners of the lips are usually tightened, with the bottom lip pushed up slightly. How can you tell if a smile is genuine? Look at the upper half of a person’s face. Genuine or “felt” smiles involve the muscles that make the eyes crinkle with pleasure.


 When a mother insists she’s not upset by a knocked-over glass of milk or a poor report card, kids often ignore the words and react to a frown or strained voice. “Children read nonverbal cues first,” says Maple. “The younger the children

are, the more important nonverbal communication is, because that’s all they have.” Even newborns respond to body language. An infant will sense tension in the way her mother is holding her and begin to cry,” says Mehrabian. “If the mother is relaxed, the infant relaxes too.”

Parents should also learn to read children’s nonverbal messages. “See what they do when they’re upset, how they release tension and respond to stress,” Maple advises. Does a little girl tug at her hair when she’s feeling insecure? Does a boy chew on his lip when he’s anxious? These behaviors signal that a child may need attention.


By understanding how to use body language, you can communicate more effectively.

 Here’s how:

  • Tune in to your body-talk. Throughout the day, notice details about the way you speak, gesture and move. When standing, keep your shoulders erect, your body open and your weight evenly balanced on both feet. But don’t feel you have to be ramrod-straight. “Posture that is too stiff can indicate rigidity in thought,”    Maple notes. Identify’ the little things you do when you’re tense. Some people twirl a lock of their hair or play with a pen. Train yourself to control these behaviors. “They can undermine the strength of what you want to say,” says Austin. To look as though you’re in charge when seated, sit squarely in a chair, feet on the floor and shoulders straight. “Rest your forearms on the table,” suggests Austin. “This posture conveys the message: I will not move.” If you slouch or jiggle your foot, you’ll seem uninterested or distressed. Have a friend videotape you so you can see yourself as others do.
  • Work on your handshake. In the business world, the handshake conveys crucial messages about power and status. The handshake most likely to convey confidence is firm and dry, with strong but not excessive pressure applied steadily for the time the contact lasts. Don’t bend your wrist or grip only the fingers.
  • Establish good eye contact. Eye contact is the most remembered element in forming an impression of someone,” says Austin. “You must acquire the ability to sustain direct eye contact if you want to be taken seriously.” But some people—men more so than women—feel uncomfortable with a too-intense eye grip. To avoid this problem, shift your focus so that your gaze hits somewhere between the eyes and the chin, rather than pupil to pupil. In a work-related situation, says Ekman, “the dominant person always has the right to look and keep looking; the subordinate is supposed to look away. If you maintain eye contact so intently that your boss feels uncomfortable, she’ll sense that you’re challenging her authority—even if that’s not what you intended.”
  • Communicate at your child’s level. The way you hold your body can show youngsters where you— and they—stand. If you fold your arms across your chest or cross your legs while you talk, you’re closing off communication. If you tap your foot, you seem impatient. With young children, kneel or bend down so you can look into their eyes. With older kids, lean against a wall or counter, put your weight on one foot and keep your arms at your side so you appear open to their needs.
  • Be yourself Nonverbal messages come from deep inside you, from your own sense of self—esteem, says Maple. “To improve your body language, you have to start from the inside and work out. If you’re comfortable with yourself, it shows. People who know who they are have a relaxed way of talking and moving. They always come across well.”



    January, 1994, (pgs. 165-169)

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