Body Language in the Workplace

The Chicago Tribune online has a column today that discusses body language in the workplace.  The author, Daneen Skube, seems to know her stuff, except when she writes this:

However, the body is a powerful communication channel that is mostly ignored or dimly noticed at work, even though studies find body language carries 55 percent of the meaning during communication.

That’s simply not what the studies say.   In reality the percentage of meaning communicated depends on what is being communicated, and to whom.  In one-on-one conversation a greater percentage of meaning tends to be carried non-verbally.   This is because emotional content is more important in this type of conversation, and body-language is primarily a transmitter of emotional meaning.    If you are trying to communicate something that is technical in nature, or if you are speaking to groups, the percentage of meaning that can be attributed to non-verbal sources will change.   It may seem like I’m picking nits, but I really think an expert ought to provide accurate information rather than innacurate tropes.   If she had simply qualified the statement I would have more confidence in her expertise.

What I do like about the column is her description of the challenges her students face in learning to pay attention to multiple channels of communication:

The main problem my clients find in learning to listen when the body talks is that they can’t multitask and process both words and nonverbal signals. Being capable of paying attention to both information channels at once is an art learned through practice.

A good place to start practicing this two-channel awareness is to pay attention to what your body and others’ bodies do when you’re in boring situations (e.g., meetings). Since you’re bored anyway, you’ll have some extra attention to use in observing nonverbal communication.

In these meetings, experiment with imitating different postures or gestures you see people use. How do you feel when you pound your fist, drape your arms over the chair, or sit with legs and arms crossed. You can use the feelings that come up for you when you are in these postures to better understand what is going on inside of your coworkers.

I really like the idea of paying closer attention to the link between your own feelings and non-verbal behavior.  Self 0bservation makes a lot of sense as a learning method.  Not only would it help you learn what other people’s body language is ‘saying,’ it would also make you more aware of how your own body language is affecting others.

Part of my job as a blogger is to help you learn what to look for when reading and evaluating media articles about non-verbal communication.   One of the big red flags, I think, are unattributed and unqualified statistics about what percentage of meaning is due to what channel of communication.  Take, for example, this article from Africa Business Daily.   It comes with the standard babble about how 55 percent of a first impression is based on body language.   Indeed, first impressions usually are heavily influenced by body language, but again it depends on the context of the first meeting.   More important is the fact that the body language component of a first impression tends to have the most powerful and lasting effect.  

I’m also struck by how the author confidently describes our zone of personal space as being 18 inches.  This is true.  For AMERICANS!  Lord knows what the personal zone might be for Africans.  I would imagine it varies considerably across the continent, since this is something that is culturally determined.  It would be better if the author simply pointed out that it’s a good idea to respect personal space. 

What this and the percentages cited earlier tell me is that the author is merely spouting a few factoids he got from some book on body language, and really doesn’t know much about the topic.  Luckily the rest of the article is pretty accurate.

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