Health and Harmony in the Tribal Workplace: What Messages Is Your Body Language Sending?

Grace Marks
March 13, 2013

Rolling your eyes, tilting your head, folding your arms, tapping your fingers, playing with your hair, slouching, sighing, or speaking softly or loudly, sends powerful messages to others. From your facial expressions to your body movements, the things you don't say convey volumes of information.

Body language is relevant in all relationships and all aspects of work and business where your communication is observed by others. The ability to understand how you use your body, facial expressions and voice can help you relate better to your co-workers and customers.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Sending and receiving body language occurs mostly on an unconscious level. Ninety-three percent of our communication is non-verbal. Only 7 percent is through verbal communication. 

Your eyes send a variety of messages including happiness, sadness, anger, judgment, surprise, excitement, disinterest, fear and despair. When you raise one eyebrow, you are saying, “Oh really?” Closing your eyes halfway indicates, “I am suspicious,” and rolling your eyes coveys, “I am frustrated or exasperated.”   

The positioning of your arms can mean you are either open or closed. Arms are reliable indicators of mood and feeling, especially when interpreted with other body language. Crossed arms and legs can indicate a defensive position, while uncrossed arms and legs indicate a willingness to listen. Crossed arms plus crossed legs and frowning with clenched fists are telling you someone is definitely defensive and probably hostile too.

Even though you cannot be seen over the phone, how you think and feel about yourself affects how you “appear” to the person on the other end. Smile as you talk. Your smile will transfer over the phone. Be conscious of any non-verbal reactions such as sighing that can signal frustration or impatience.

Tone of Voice Speaks Volumes

It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. When you speak, other people “read” your voice in addition to listening to your words. Your pace, tone, loudness, inflection and sounds can convey sarcasm, anger, frustration, affection, understanding or confidence. 

One of the most common customer service complaints is rudeness. It is usually a result of someone’s tone of voice when answering a question or providing information. In a business environment, this affects both internal and external customer service. Rather than creating a positive experience, the customer, client or employee, feels verbally violated. You may not even be aware of your tone until you witness the non-verbal reaction. This clues you in to their feelings and gives you an opportunity to make it right.

Tune Into Feelings

Paying attention to non-verbal signals gives you insight into another’s feelings. You will know whether someone is sincere, confused, afraid, angry or frustrated, experiencing stress, or telling the truth. According to research conducted at Northeastern University, the “Telltale Four” cluster of non-verbal signals of dishonesty are hand touching, face touching, crossed arms and leaning away.

Acknowledging that someone looks or sounds sad or stressed can connect you on a deeper level and help you act accordingly. You can ask someone who looks lost or confused if they need help, respond sensitively to someone who appears afraid, or be prepared if you sense someone is being deceptive or angry by their facial expression or tone of voice. That extra insight will give you a more honest appraisal of others and assist you in communicating more effectively and empathetically.

Keep building these skills by paying careful attention to nonverbal behavior and practicing different types of nonverbal communication with others. With time and practice, you can dramatically improve your communication abilities.

Grace Marks, MPH, CPC is a certified life coach, motivational speaker, and holistic stress management instructor with Native Empowerment: Solutions for Health and Harmony, providing customized training programs for tribal organizations and businesses.