How Body Language Helps Difficult Conversations

Posted on April 12, 2017

Photo: flickr

Of the many conversations that we have with people on a daily basis, perhaps one of the most difficult conversations occurs when we are giving feedback to others. Being truthful is one thing, but it is quite another to be brutally honest to the point of being blunt or scathing. There is a thin line between conveying our messages effectively and maintaining friendliness, and should we accidentally trip and slip off, it could lead to unforeseen and unpleasant consequences.

While we are very much aware of the need to maintain a positive atmosphere in our relationships with our loved ones, the same cannot be said for our workplaces. However, building a positive and warm workplace culture has many benefits: a sense of inclusiveness and psychological safety is nurtured when employers are empathetic and encourage their employees to share their ideas and opinions. This improves the performance of the staff, and even encourages them to think creatively. Certainly, offering honest yet supportive feedback builds trust among employees; in fact, brain scans have shown that employees react more positively to bosses who are empathetic. When they trust their bosses more, they also perform better. Unsurprisingly, these positive “vibes” extend to employees’ health and well-being as well; just as how being in a healthy and happy romantic relationship can improve our physical and mental health, having a satisfying and supportive workplace environment can positively affect employees in similar ways.

What this means is that for us to create this sort of environment, both in the workplace and at home, giving honest yet supportive feedback is of paramount importance. The key to delivering feedback effectively lies in our body language. Even though many sources emphasise the spoken words, the non-verbal actions we exhibit while giving feedback also matter a great deal.

We are always reading others’ non-verbal cues, such as their body language and facial expressions, although we usually do this almost unconsciously. Here are some non-verbal cues that we pay the most attention to:

1. Facial expression
Undoubtedly, facial expression is perhaps the first thing we notice when we look at another person. A person’s smile activates your own smile muscles, while a person’s frown activates your own frown muscles. In other words, we internalise how the other person is feeling by mirroring that person’s facial expression in our own. In fact, we can discern someone’s smile even when we cannot see that person, such as during a conversation over the phone, for example. Simply put, do not forget to smile when giving someone feedback, even if you are not meeting the person face to face.

2. Eye contact
Research has proven that our eyes are indeed very powerful indicators of emotion; just from someone’s gaze, you can reasonably predict how he or she is feeling. Eye contact is the primary step for resonance, a psychological term which is defined as a person’s ability to read someone else’s feelings. Looking into someone’s eyes is also a sure way of feeling connected to that person, which is especially important when offering feedback, as it could be a difficult conversation in itself.

3. Voice
The tones of our voices are more emotive than the words we speak. In fact, the way we speak changes according to how we feel about a person. Hence, it is also important to keep the tone of your voice warm and pleasant when giving feedback.

4. Posture
The way you sit is also highly important when it comes to giving feedback. For instance, crossing your arms might already make you seem more authoritative or standoffish, while sitting tall with your chest open and arms uncrossed gives off a friendlier impression. Remember to give affirmative responses to the other person: nod, smile and give words of affirmation in reply to what they are saying. On the other hand, try not to act superior or domineering.

5. Breathing pattern
Often, our picture of anger comes with sharp, shallow breaths. This is a prime example of how our feelings change our patterns of breathing. We sigh when we are annoyed or tired, for instance. One piece of advice is to take deep, long breaths before starting the difficult conversation; exhaling for longer than you inhale helps to calm you down by lowering your blood pressure and heart rate. This would also put you, and the person you are speaking to, at ease.

6. Attention
Research shows that our minds are distracted approximately half of the time. Due to our packed schedules and endless to-do lists, our thoughts might be detached from the conversation we are having, and we might not be giving the person we are talking to our full attention. However, they are able to notice this, no matter how well we think we can hide it. Being fully present and engaged in the conversation is important, as you will then be able to understand the person and respond to him or her appropriately and tactfully, making the conversation more meaningful.

Ultimately, while these pieces of advice are useful, they can only be effective if not forcefully applied. According to research, our blood pressure even rises when we sense that someone is not being genuine. Since the point of giving feedback is for it to be received positively and lead to improvement, it is important to be yourself whilst bearing in mind some of the tips offered above.

Category(s):Other, Workplace Issues

Source material from Psychology Today

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