When we meet someone for the first time, our primitive brain decides instantly whether the person is a potential ally, enemy or somewhere in between. Our minds are made up during the first critical seconds of visual contact. Too often, our instincts protect us unnecessarily by sending visual cues that say, "Stay away."
Here is an example of our primitive brain in action. You have just met someone for the first time at a business conference and within seconds, you feel good about them. You feel that you share a common ground and that you have met them before or have known them for some time. They may remind you of someone you like, and as a result your brain gathers evidence to "like" them as the conversation continues. Or, you immediately feel uncomfortable upon meeting them -- and your brain sets to work building a case against them.
In both instances, your body language takes over and mirrors your feelings in subtle, and not-so-subtle, body language. If you are comfortable with them, you will have an easy time making eye contact and adopt an open stance with your feet slightly spread when shaking their hand. You will tend to relax your posture and lean towards them. Conversely, if you feel uncomfortable with them, you will have trouble making eye contact, will stand outside of the friendly arm's length distance, and may cross your arms.
The biggest challenge we face when correcting negative body language is overriding immediate impulses by our primitive brain to form opinions of people we have just met that result in negative body language.
Here are seven tips to help you manage your primitive brain and better manage your body language.
Don't judge too quickly
Avoid the temptation to quickly judge strangers by the way they speak, present themselves and dress. Your preconceived notions about others can rob you of potentially productive business and personal relationships. If someone does not overly impress you upon first meeting them, make a conscious effort to smile, introduce yourself with a warm handshake, and create a positive and welcoming persona. This will relax them. Eye contact is critical here. To appear friendly and attentive, focus on the triangle below the eyes and above the mouth. Avoid looking at their "third eye" in the triangle at the centre of their forehead. This is an intimidating technique to silence bores or conclude a conversation. Also avoid darting your eyes from their face to check out what's going on around the room.
Active listening is essential to overcoming negative body language. If you are speaking with someone who seems self-absorbed and shows no interest in you, let them continue for a brief period. Rather than showing your disapproval by letting your eye contact drift, folding your arms, shifting from foot to foot, staring into your empty glass, or leaning away from the conversation, sustain your interest for another minute -- if you can. It may be that your conversation partner is insecure or nervous and talking about him/herself is calming. They may suddenly say, "Enough about me. Tell me about yourself."
People know when you're lying
When people stretch the truth a little to put others at ease or avoid sharing information that will create a negative impression, they will place their hands over their mouths or touch their mouths or chins with an index finger. They are trying to subconsciously suppress the mistruths they are speaking. Winking, head tilting and smiling that is inconsistent with facial expressions are also indicators of truth avoidance.
It's sometimes hard to remain attentive during a presentation. Show your interest by avoiding foot tapping, doodling or pen twirling; leaning your head on your hand; rubbing your eye with your index finger; or looking around the room to gauge audience reaction to the speaker. Otherwise, it can make it appear that you are judging the performance.
Avoid "closed" positions
Crossing your arms across your chest and arm gripping are two examples of negative body language. When you do either, you are protecting the front of your body as if your conversational partner is threatening you. You will likely see this in long lineups or other public situations where people feel threatened or bored. I saw a television interview recently where the interviewer and the celebrity athlete stood close together facing one another with their arms crossed. When I muted the audio, it looked as if they were having a confrontation as both looked very serious and were "squared" off against one another.
Respect personal space
Placing your hand on someone's shoulder or arm when you meet them for the first time can create discomfort because your friendly overtures come too soon or are simply unwelcome. However, when done appropriately, shoulder and arm touching can also quickly build trust, especially in retail environments or selling situations. Its success depends on whether it is seen as sincere or acting. Touching a stranger above or below the elbow is more likely to be unwelcome than a direct elbow touch.
Respect group dynamics
During a conversation around a table, negative body language includes pushing your chair away from the table and leaning back, which connotes disinterest or fatigue. Pushing your chair away from the table and leaning forward communicates your interest in ending the conversation. You may be insulting others who are not ready to end the meeting. Before you push your chair away and lean forward, ensure that others are doing the same to signal their agreement to end the meeting.
Controlling your body language can overcome your natural tendency to sometimes send the wrong signal to people you might want to get to know. If you can remember to smile naturally, hold appropriate eye contact, shake their hand properly and use a welcoming posture when first meeting them, you stand a better chance of engaging them versus unintentionally pushing them away.
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