Soft skills: 10 body language tips for leaders

Soft skills: 10 body language tips for leaders

Body language matters when leaders communicate – even one-on-one. Learn how to make your nonverbal communication work for you, not against you

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7. Limit distractions that pull your focus away

Dr. Ariane Machin, psychology professor at Purdue University Global and co-founder of Conscious Coaching Collective: “Pay attention to the person you are speaking with. It sounds basic, but with our many distractions (phone, text messages, tones that are coming from our computer or phones, etc.), we have never been more distracted as a culture. Your tone of voice is also something to pay attention to. Are you speaking with a confident, authoritative tone, or are you saying ‘um’ and hesitating with the words you are using? These will all be cues to the person you are interacting with.”

8. Try mirroring in one-on-one interactions

Next time you are talking to someone one-on-one, notice if they slant their head if they speak quickly or slowly...

Andres Lares, managing partner, Shapiro Negotiations Institute: “It’s less about what you do and more about being cognizant. Just like you might pick the right keywords for a big speech, it’s important to be as intentional about your body language, especially for sensitive or critical presentations, one-on-one meetings, etc.

“Consider mirroring. Next time you are talking to someone one-on-one, notice if they slant their head, if they speak quickly or slowly, how close or far they are from you, their posture, etc., and if possible, see if you can slowly replicate it. Do this only if you feel comfortable and it’s not ridiculous. You will find that the other side feels more comfortable with you. It’s the equivalent of them asking where you are from and you saying the same state – a nice ice-breaker and connection point.”

9. Show empathy

Vijay J. Marolia, chief investment officer, Regal Point Capital: “I believe posture and tone (of voice) are critically important. If either comes off too harsh, the listener(s) may automatically go into a defensive mindset, lessening the impact of the intended message. The right tone, accompanied by the right posture (one showing empathy), can cure the most uncomfortable conversations.

“A big mistake leaders make is appearing distracted or disinterested when approached. Although leaders are busy, their employees are people, and people have feelings, baggage, hopes, and concerns. Leaders should convey empathy and understanding – even in the most hectic of times – and body language is one way they can do so.”

10. Beware scanning the room – and giving the OK

Leila Bulling Towne, executive coach, The Bulling Towne Group, LLC: “Eye contact seems simple, but it can be tricky – even for leaders with decades of experience. True eye contact means you are looking at a person and sustaining that contact for five to seven seconds. Looking at people for just a second or two is not eye contact. ‘Scanning’ the room sends a message that you are searching for someone better to connect with. So those who receive just a glance or two feel they are not important.

“Gestures are also tricky. Leaders want to use their hands to show emotion, to emphasize their words, yet they tend to fall back on a few well-worn gestures such as thumbs up, the OK sign, or making a circle with both hands to signify ‘global’ or ‘wide-reaching.’ These gestures feel immature and are ineffective, and using them outside the United States can even offend.”

How to evaluate your own body language

For leaders who want to start working on improving their own body language, Towne has some actionable advice: “Use the next week you are in the office to ask yourself these questions each day.” 

Eye contact: Are your eyes mostly on your laptop when you are in a meeting? Or looking down at your phone as you walk through the hallways or stand in the elevator? Who are the last three people you saw in the elevator or in the kitchen today? (Can’t remember? You probably weren't looking at them – what does that convey?) Which people are you comfortable making eye contact with? Why? Why not with others?”

Body Language: “What are the first things you do when you enter a meeting? Open your laptop? Open a notebook? Wait for others to arrive? Play with your phone? Where are your hands during a meeting? When you speak, what are your hands doing? What is your relaxed hand position? What is your stressed hand position? Are you leaning forward or back? What is your listening posture? Arms crossed or down? How do you move your head during conversations? When you leave meetings to walk back to your office or to your next gathering, are you walking fast or slow? Is your phone in your hand or pocket/purse/bag?”

“Write down your answers and after five days, you will have solid data on how your body language is helping or hindering you,” says Towne. “The next step is to ask a trusted peer to evaluate you as well, using the same or similar questions. I encourage executives to ask at least two peers: one at the C or SVP level and one who operates a level below. These should be people you trust to tell you the hard truth about what your eyes, hands, and body are saying to them and to others.”

[ Is your leadership playbook outdated? Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership. ]

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