In an effort to better understand the business of body language for this piece, I reached out to a bona fide expert in the field, Donna Van Natten, known as the "Body Language Dr." She is the author of a provocative new book, Image Scrimmage--a research-packed, how-to manual on the dos and don'ts of nonverbal communication.
In my original interview with her about her book, I gathered several nuggets of information for improving our body image, first impressions, and the way others perceive us.
Communicate with your eyes
Most of us aren't even aware of how much our eyes communicate, and the messages it sends off. Van Natten explains that even our pupils can give away our feelings. I asked her what we should be looking for in others' eyes to gain an edge, and how we should "respond' to others with our own eyes. Here's Van Natten:
Pupils change under certain conditions--especially when they are triggered by our emotions. When we're attracted to or like something, they grow; when we don't, they shrink. Think about this during a meeting. Your colleague is excited about the new project. You even notice that her eyes light up as she grins excessively. In reality, her genuine emotions are being immediately expressed through her eye language and pupil size. Most people lean towards a big-eyed person. It's easier to "read" them when you can see them. Be on the lookout and you'll begin to notice how others' pupils align with their feelings. Also, take note that your own pupils will call you out if your inner feelings and your outward behaviors don't match. We are looking at the eyes as we "look inside or into the soul" of the person to validate their message. I think it is a competitive edge, and we know that people with strong presence have strong eye contact and firm handshakes that support or validate their message.
Van Natten says that truth and deception definitely can show up in the eyes (and face) in many different ways, including blink rate change, looking away or staring, movement around the mouth, and skin color changes.
Stand like Wonder Woman or Superman.
Being aware of your stance, whether speaking in front of an audience or even in a group of casual acquaintances, is really important. In her book, Van Natten says that "intentionally positioning our bodies to look like Wonder Woman/Superman, when necessary, shifts others' perceptions, as well as our own inner thoughts, in terms of power."
Interesting. I asked her to unpack that further. Here's Van Natten:
We do pick up on the entire person standing before us, including leg and foot positions. Someone who is authentically engaged and present in the situation involves their whole body in the conversation. They get closer, they face you, and they bring their bodies and feet towards you to demonstrate "I'm fully here." By taking on the wider stance of Wonder Woman/Superman, we clearly are telling others, without using our words, that "I'm present and commanding space and attention." It's like saying, "I'm willing to take on the world--starting with all of me!"
Studies often examine body positioning, size, and status, and, for the most part, the results are consistent that it pays off to intentionally position our bodies this way.
Position yourself tall (even if you're not).
Van Natten says that we strongly communicate our inner thoughts and feelings with the outward display of how we position our bodies. Since most of us tend to associate taller as better, it would make sense to stand tall. In the animal world, says Van Natten, dominant animals make themselves larger to let others around them know they are worth watching.
When we see people slouching or slumping, we infer "slouch" and "slump." Both are negative impressions. "Think of it this way," she says. "If you saw someone smiling and looking around investigating their surroundings--but then saw them slumping, it would look odd. A smile and a slouch don't go together."
"Pride and confidence are shown via 'heads held high' (but not too high, or that's arrogance), chest out (think of our armies and how they stand to demonstrate power and dominance), and tall/erect bodies which indicate control of self, health, and being present," says Van Natten.
Be aware of your voice pitch.
Van Natten gives evidence of how the pitch of our voice is tied to emotion, and, often, elevates when emotions kick in. For that reason, she says, "we'd be wise to gather our emotions and check how our inner feelings emerge through our voice, even though no words are uttered."
She states that there's a definite connection between our tone of voice and how we engage with others who evoke emotion from us. "Without thinking," she says, "your tone may give way to your true feelings if left unchecked. It impacts both our communication and perceptions by others."