Toastmaster Speech 5: What I Learned about Body Language … from the Bar
December 6, 2010
Communication is said to have 3 components. 50% body language, 40% intonation and 10% actual message. As a scientist, I’ve always considered the best way to study something is to isolate the one aspect you are investigating. Body language being the largest part of our communication, and also the one I find most interesting, is the one I wanted to look at on it’s own. A loud bar where nobody can hear anything does exactly that. Messages have to be short and to the point since words are be lost very easily, and everyone is speaking at the same intonation and volume; yelling in each others ears. We can use this intense study of interactions in the bar to learn subtle messages in body language to everyday life
The first thing I took notice of when at the bar is two people’s body language in relation to each other. If you see one person sitting with their arms crossed leaning back and the other leaning over the table, you know consciously that these person aren’t connected or on the same wavelength. You might interpret this as one person being stubborn while another is trying to convince them of the point. Conversely, you might see one person attacking the other. However, using those same body positions, if both people are leaning forward on the table, you’d unconsciously realize they are connection, possibly engrossed in a deep conversation. If both people are leaning back, they are still connected, maybe they are two old friends relaxed and catching up. This act of matching body position in conversation is called mirroring. People are usually on the same wavelength in conversation when they are mirroring each other. They will move in at the same time, laugh at the same time and talk in the same tone. If you match someone else’s body language, they will tend to feel more connected with you; they will interpret this as you understanding and following what you are saying. A classic example is when you are angry. This about if you approach someone when you’re upset about something. What is the worst thing they can say? “Calm down”. The opposite occurs when you request this of someone because they are trying to convey their anger, and the asking them to calm down is ignoring the message and reasserting their own. Instead, try matching their energy level at first. Stand up with them and in the same tone, say something sympathetic. “Wow! That would piss me off too if that happened to me! You must be really mad! I wonder if there is a reason that happened? Maybe there is some detail we missed.” Lead the energy level of the conversation to a calmer energy, but only after matching that person’s energy to signify understanding.
The next thing I noticed in bars are people fiddling with things. Patrons peeling their beer labels, playing with napkins, folding beer coasters and things like that. Unconsciously, you will immediately, and correctly realize they are distracted. Their mind is on something else, or thoughts are distracted by other things. This is where most people might make the mistake of consciously concluding they are disinterested, shy, hiding something or worst of all; lying. While sometimes ones of these assumptions might be correct, it’s important to correct it is merely guesswork at this point. Leaping to conclusions about what people are thinking can be invasive and even feel like an attack to the other person. There are other factors you may be unaware of, such as they couldbe tired, had a bad day or having problems at home. The mistake most people make is jumping to conclusions about why people are distracted, which will come off more as an accusation when you ask “are you bored?” or “did you have a bad day?” The simplest thing to do at this point is to just be straightforward and ask, “you seem distracted, what’s up?” Don’t accuse their intentions or tell people how they might be feeling, as it will be interpreted as invasive or as an attack. Don’t allow your conscious mind to spin off conclusions from your unconscious findings. The simplest thing to do is to show a person that you’ve noticed, and you want to know more.
Another interesting aspect of body language in the bar is where people place the most common accessory; their drink. Wall flowers tend to hold their drink in front of them as a protection mechanism. They will take longs swigs to look busy, and they will have as many fingers wrapped around their drink as possible. The more open people will place their drinks at their side, or possibly rest them on a table. They take short swigs as they don’t want their mouths full in case they have something to say, and you might even notice that they hold their drink with as few fingers as possible. Not only does your thoughts and emotions dictate your body position, but your body position can dictate your thoughts and emotions. The way people stand will actually set their frame of mind. The most common example of this is someone in a meeting with their arms crossed leaning back in that chair. That person will not even consider your options, and it will be impossible to convince they while they sit like that. So you ask them to walk and talk, and suddenly, which their body is moving their mind starts to move. You might not convince them or change their mind, but they will undoubtedly now have at least seen things from your point of view. It’s important to notice that if you are caught using these techniques, people will become even more invasive, so it might be invasive to try to intentionally change their body position. Instead, just notice their body position. If the person is sitting in a guarded position, evaluate your conversation and see if what you’re talking about might be too personal. If they are showing that they are open, keep on whatever you are talking about and asking questions, because they are comfortable with the current topic.
There is a lot to look at in the message behind the words people say. This is just the study of one environment, and then I didn’t even get into the interaction of men and women in the bar, but that’s a whole other blog post. An important note is that body language is a two way streets; thoughts dictate body position, and body position dictates thoughts. Reading peoples body language on a conscious level as well as unconscious can give you some insight into their thoughts, and allows you respond appropriately. It is also important to notice where people place themselves, their hands or objects they are holding for insight into their thoughts. I encourage you to watch body language outside the bar as well. It will help you communicate better, and also anticipate other peoples need in conversation, without having to state them outright.