You’re sitting across from a person you’re trying to persuade in some way. Maybe it’s a job interview, and you’re trying to convince him to hire you. Maybe you’re in sales and you’re trying to convince him to buy your product. Maybe you’re negotiating to buy something and you’re trying to convince him to bend a little on the price. As make your case, the person across from you folds his arms in front of his body and leans back in his chair. He also crosses his legs and angles his body slightly away from you. These are not good signs. Whatever it is you’re trying to convince him to do, he’s not buying it.
The body language this hypothetical man is exhibiting is what we call ‘closed.’ It means that both literally and figuratively, the person is closing himself off to consideration of your ideas; he’s resistant. This behavior is an unconscious manifestation of the person’s desire to avoid discomfort. There’s either something about what he’s hearing or something about you that he doesn’t like, so he tries to protect himself from the unpleasant stimuli.
The biggest problem most of us face when somebody responds to us with closed body language is that we tend to respond in kind. There are two reasons for this. First, we all have a tendency to unconsciously mirror the body language of the people we are speaking with. Second, we tend to view people with closed body language as being cold, hostile, or judgemental, so we have a natural tendency to try to protect ourselves from the unpleasant feelings that person is causing us.
As you might guess, closing ourselves off is the worst thing we could do when we encounter signs of resistance, because it only further alienates the person we’re trying to open up. The better response is to examine our own body language to make sure it is open and friendly.
What does open body language look like? Let’s start with the feet and work our way up. If a person is open to you, his feet are pointing in your direction. They aren’t tucked under the chair, but rather are on the floor in a comfortable position. If his legs are crossed, they are crossed in a comfortable, relaxed fashion. They are not crossed in a tense way, and in particularly they are not tucked underneath the body. Ideally, they are not crossed at all.
If a person is open to you, his torso is facing you directly, not angled away from you. Likewise his shoulders are squared toward you. His arms rest comfortably, usually with the palms open toward you. His face is also oriented toward you. His eyes are open relatively wide and focused on you. His eyebrows comfortably arched, and his expression is either neutral or a smile. From time to time he will nod or raise his eyebrows in response to what you say, signaling that he is listening and that he approves. His body tends to lean toward you rather than away.
All of these behaviors have a powerful effect on your mood and attitude, even when you’re not consciously aware of them. When a person’s body language is open, you tend to both like and trust that individual more. My recommendation is to practice open body language in front of a mirror. Get a strong mental image of what it looks like to be open, and more important, pay attention to how your body feels when you are open. Note what parts of your body feel tension and what parts don’t. Then, whenever you start to speak with someone, remind yourself that you want to remain ‘open’ to them, and try to relive the experiences you saw and felt while practicing.
It is important to remember that ‘closed’ body language is not necessarily a response to your own non-verbal cues. It is entirely possible that the person is showing resistance to what you are saying, and not how you are saying it. But in all cases, the first step to take when encountering non-verbal signs of resistance is to check your own body language. At the very least, you can avoid unknowingly compounding whatever communication problems you may be having. At best, opening up your own body language may help the other person like you enough and be comfortable enough with you that he’s willing to discuss his objections.