Reading body language and hearing the underlying messages is an essential skill in coaching. But in reality, it can prove challenging to understand those messages. The language of the body is potent stuff. It influences us all directly. Nonverbal communication is built into the mix of our conversations and daily encounters, and it affects how we think and feels about other people. Here’s what you need to know about body language and coaching.
Why is understanding body language important?
So much of what we communicate is nonverbal. But body language lies at the heart of communication, a vital element of building rapport with others. When our words and body language are aligned, the messages we give are clear. This congruence smooths the way for effective communication and contributes to strong relationships. It doesn’t always mean an agreement is reached, but the dialogue is meaningful and real, a genuine two-way process. So what are the nonverbal elements that constitute body language? Wikipedia’s definition illustrates them clearly:
“Body language is a type of nonverbal communication in which physical behavior, as opposed to words, is used to express or convey information. Such behavior includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space.”
These key factors influence our reactions, enhancing or detracting from our ability to hear what someone is saying to us. They also impact whether we are heard. Body language is expressed through all our conversations, although sometimes it isn’t detected, isn’t something we’re consciously aware of a lot of the time.
Coaches understand the part body language plays in building rapport. They understand that choosing a similar way of sitting, and naturally matching a client’s gestures, is a sure fire way to make the client feel more at home. Great friends will often unconsciously match or mirror each other physically, sitting in the same position and using the same gestures. It’s human nature when two people get on well.
If the body language of the people involved is too different, there will be a disconnected, awkward feeling between them. It may not be talked about, but it’ll be there under the surface. It will probably be evident to a savvy observer too, even when they can’t hear the conversation. That’s the power of body language. As an executive coach, missing this powerful nonverbal messaging means you might also miss key themes.
Changing perceptions with body positions
The way we walk, sit and position ourselves in meetings with colleagues can make a real difference to the outcome of a meeting. We know how important the smile factor can be in an interview, and many of us are aware of the powerful effect of a senior person’s confident, straight and strong stance. We don’t need words to understand what’s happening – we feel it unconsciously.
Scientist Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk is worth watching. Here’s a link. She suggests that, “Research on body language reveals that we can change other people’s perceptions — and perhaps even our own body chemistry — simply by changing body positions.”
In her talk she also asks some interesting questions: Do our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves? Can we fake it to make it? She argues that we can and that our body language will shape not only how we come across to others but how we feel about ourselves. In her experience making a conscious effort can make us feel more bold, confident, successful. By taking on open, robust body stances, we can change how we feel and see ourselves. It isn’t just faking it. Eventually, we will believe it and become it.
It’s encouraging, knowing that simply shifting your position or moving into a more open posture can be helpful in coaching. Standing up and walking with your head held high can change the mood. Repositioning yourself in your chair or altering the way you enter a room can have a definite impact on how your client ‘feels’ your presence.
Lost in thought – How to listen
It can be useful to remember that there are many forms of knowledge. The majority of coaching and work conversations involve thinking and talking – lots of talking. Business life reflects and reinforces this way of being, frequently ignoring the body and senses. As a coach, it is easy to get caught up in the client’s story or the complexity of the problem, leaving both of you lost in thought. Too much talking and thinking means the head does all the work. Sometimes the body has a deeper wisdom, more profound knowledge. We just need to stop and listen to what it is saying.
The body has it’s own cellular memory and wisdom. Listening out for the subtle nuances of bodily communication involves a coach listening to their bodily signals as well as encouraging their client to listen to their own. As Frederick Perls, German-born Psychiatrist and one of the founders of Gestalt therapy said, it can be helpful at times to, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”
Coaching training teaches coaches to be other-focused, familiar with and skilled at observing clients’ body language, observing to see if the client’s words and body language are congruent and noting a lack of congruence between their words and gestures. But it’s about the coach, too. If all you do is focus on the client’s communication, it’s easy to forget your body language, the messages you’re unconsciously giving out, which reduces your effectiveness as a coach. It could prevent you from ‘getting’ the bodily signals that could deliver insight for both of you.
Questions to ask yourself
As you are coaching, quietly asking yourself this question can be helpful: “What is your body language communicating to me, and what is mine communicating to you?” You can also then ask yourself these follow-on questions:
- What is the intensity of the feeling?
- If there is an image to describe it, what would that be?
- Where is the sensation located?
- How long does it remain, and does it shift?
- What is body trying to tell me that words cannot express as clearly?
You can answer these questions for yourself but only for yourself. You can only accurately read your own inner body messaging, not your client’s responses. Remember your interpretation of your client’s body language is just that – an interpretation. Reading body language is not an exact science, it’s more about understanding not mind reading. You have to ask them about their own experience rather than acting on your assumptions, which at the end of the day are only hunches.
Body language can happen fast and can even be subliminal. It’s easy to notice distinct emotions like joy or an angry outburst when the emotions are congruent with your client’s words and body language. But what about more complex emotions involving tears, frustration and anxiety? Their meaning – why they have emerged is not always so self- evident. And what about when someone’s body language hints at conflicting emotions?
If your client has their arms crossed over their chest, it may not mean they are feeling defensive, wrapping themselves up to feel more secure. It could mean they’re cold, or just feeling the need to support themselves physically because they’re tired. It might just be their habitual way of sitting, something they find comfortable.
The best approach is to describe what you’re seeing and ask your client what their body language means. They’re the experts, and they understand what they’re experiencing. Sweeping judgments and inferences don’t support the coaching process. It’s far better to hold your interpretations loosely.
Amplifying a body movement
Sometimes amplifying a body movement lets clients hear what they are saying to themselves more clearly. They might be talking about a knotty issue, demonstrating it by twisting their hands together. They might speak of a tight deadline and the pressure they feel, unconsciously fiddling with their coffee mug on the table in anxiety. They might talk about the new horizons and future possibilities using open-armed gestures or point towards a future point.
Supposing a client is tapping their pen on the table in frustration, you can draw attention to what they are doing and ask them to exaggerate the movement. You can explore the message that the movement is expressing and let your client hang words onto the amplification. This is a potent way to release what the body already knows. Then you can ask the client questions to elicit even better insight and understanding, for example:
- What does this movement tell you?
- Given this is what you are saying to yourself, what do you need to do next?
- What might this have to do with the issue we were previously discussing?
- Does the movement stop or shift, now that we have noticed it?
- Is there anything else that needs to happen here?
Improve your body language skills
Building real rapport through the careful and respectful reading of your client’s body language is an essential part of every great coach’s toolkit. If you would like to gain more skill at identifying body language signals, get in touch.