We may think we mainly communicate verbally—WRONG. We communicate mostly nonverbally or by body language - our posture, movements, gestures, facial expressions, voice tone, quality, and volume. A great example can be found in a classic Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown says to Lucy – and I am paraphrasing—"Never straighten up your back if you are depressed. You have to slump over with eyes downcast, feeling the weight of the world." Charlie Brown is saying that
(1) Other people perceive us by our body language.
(2) How we perceive ourselves is manifested in our body language.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a renowned neuroscientist, says the "Body keeps the score." Current research in neurobiology and psychology indicates that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, intentions and beliefs are held in our body and have been shaped by our early infant and childhood interactions with our parents or other caretakers.
(3) The mind and body are intertwined so that changing the way we use our body to communicate can change the how we are perceived by others and how we perceive ourselves. Of course, we need to be cognizant about how we express ourselves nonverbally.Try it out yourself-- notice how you are sitting now and then slump in your seat and then straighten up. Did you feel differently?
I am going to use the example of public speaking to demonstrate how a public speaker's body language can influence not only the speaker's effectiveness, but the perceptions of the speaker's audience. Public speaking often triggers a person's vulnerabilities and these can shadow the performance – verbally and, most notably, nonverbally. Throughout their lives, people may experience negative reactions to their being assertive or expressing who they are and, because they were punished, not validated or felt that they would be abandoned /not liked if they were authentic, they could carry lingering feelings of inadequacy about who they are and/or their abilities, or not even be in touch with who they are. Such negative feelings could adversely affect a public speaker's psyche and, ultimately, negatively impact their body language and presentation skills. On the other hand, people may experience positive reactions to the same issues and they would likely carry lingering feelings of self-worth, strength and confidence in their abilities resulting in a very effective public speaker.
There are two kinds of speakers: secure and confident or insecure and self-doubting. Like Charlie Brown astutely observed, standing straight certainly doesn't convey depression or having the weight of the world on your shoulders. A self-assured speaker will stand straight and maintain eye contact with the audience, whereas the self-doubting speaker will tend to have slumped shoulders and likely will look more at notecards than the audience. The confident speaker will be animated in vocal expression, timber, tone, volume and gestures while the insecure speaker may speak too softly, not punctuate points, not use gestures and facial expressions to engage the audience.
We want to emulate the confident speaker; that person strides purposively up to the stage, directly faces the audience, stands up straight with weight evenly distributed on his/her feet. The chest is up, chin is lifted, shoulders are relaxed and not pushed forward, and the speaker takes deep, full breaths to support the voice. This speaker's movements have purpose. He/she moves across the stage to drive home an idea gesturing, when appropriate, to attract and engage the listener's attention. When applicable, hands are used to show weight, shape, direction, emphasis on certain points. Facial expressions communicate the speaker's attitude, feelings and emotions more clearly than other parts of the body. For example, the speaker's eyes and head lower when sad or eyes open wide and eyebrows lift to express surprise. And, of course, a smile is a great way to engage the audience and also works to relax the speaker given its positive chemical release. The confident speaker is expressive and makes direct eye contact for a sufficient amount of time with as many audience members as possible and speaks clearly, and varies tone, pace and volume to support the presentation. Using these nonverbal communication skills, the speaker will keep the audience engaged and all will, ultimately, feel good about the presentation and the speaker.
The insecure speaker's body language screams its fallibility to others and to him/herself. This speaker seems unfocused, slouches, moves about aimlessly, fidgets and sways. A speaker whose eyes dart about, rather than connect with the audience will quickly disconnect from the listeners as will one speaking in whispers or a monotone voice. Self-touching, neck scratching, collar-tugging, placing fingers in the mouth, licking, biting lips, jaw tightening are all gestures that often tell of shame, doubt, and presentational anxiety. Furthermore, halfhearted gestures may also distract from content as well as rising shoulders or shrugs seemingly dismiss the importance of what one is saying. This speaker will lose the audience's attention because he/she is not projecting belief in his/her material; he/she isn't conveying that the presentation is important. Negative or weak body language may become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many people, too, who don't believe they have much to offer or who have difficulty using nonverbal communication to their advantage. Focusing on more positive nonverbal communication skills can help speakers and people gain confidence and strength in many areas of life.
Charlie Brown is not the only comic strip icon to dole out sage advice. Comic strip icons, Superman and Superwoman are stars when it comes to nonverbal communication. During her TED talk, Dr. Amy Cuddy, a clinical psychologist, suggested that we start our day with a two-minute pose of Superman/Superwoman. Stand tall, feet hip-width apart and weight evenly balanced, chest out, and chin up. Both she and I agree that our nonverbal language greatly affects how others perceive us, how we perceive ourselves and others. By working on using nonverbal communication in a more positive manner, as described above, we can change these perceptual outcomes. It is not just "fake it till you make it" – "but fake it till you become it.
Changing nonverbal communication skills is not always easy and we may need some professional help to ensure that you "fake it til you make it" so you will have that transformative experience. Pat Ogden, the creator of sensorimotor psychotherapy takes a body-oriented approach in order to understand how trauma, emotion and the beliefs we hold become encoded in the body. (Trauma is not limited to what we usually think of – it includes relational trauma which results from the caregiver not being in tune with the child). Our procedural memory, which does not involve thinking and is automatic like tying one's shoes or riding a bike, gets recorded in our habitual posture, gestures, how we carry ourselves, movement, and tension patterns. If we know how to read the language of the body we can become aware of the stories it is telling us about why certain behaviors, feelings, and thoughts run our lives and have an emotional necessity to continue. This can be changed. The basic belief in sensorimotor psychotherapy is the wisdom of the body to heal, and that the body needs to complete the action that was needed, but not done, at the time of the disturbing interaction(s) or event(s). Mindfulness or an awareness of the body states is not enough to effect change; directed mindfulness is what is needed. An example of how this therapy uses directed mindfulness to help someone break through and connect with core emotions and beliefs can be found in my article, "Healing Emotional Wounds," in which I describe a violent crime survivor client's transformation during sensorimotor psychotherapy. Thanks to this therapy, this client was finally able to scream, "NO!" and "push her hands forward acting out pushing away the perpetrator." She overcame her fearfulness, was able to take charge, assert herself physically and verbally and was able to become an assertive confidant individual.
I have completed level 1 sensorimotor psychotherapy and was supervised by Janina Fisher who collaborated with Pat Ogden. I encourage you to come in for a consultation to see how exciting this work is and I look forward to meeting you.
Amy Cuddy "Your body language shapes who you are" TED Global 2012
Ogden, Pat & Fisher, Janina "Sensorimotor Psychotherapy." Norton: NY (2015)
Toastmasters International: Competent Communication Manual (2012)
Van Der Kolk, Bessel. "The Body Keeps the Score" Viking Penguin: NY (2014)