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Body Language at Work: Do’s and Don’ts

Imagine your boss slamming their wrist on the table while saying, “In my office now for a friendly little chat!” in an aggressive tone – what makes you think it’s not going to be friendly at all?
“It’s their body language,” says Thomas De Brun, founder of consulting firm Wolfhound Associates and body language coach at PD Training. “Even if you say nothing, you’re still saying something. Understanding non-verbal cues can greatly facilitate workplace liaisons.” So how can we improve our non-verbal communication skills? Follow these do’s and don’ts to master the art of body language at work.

Body Language Do’s

Give a memorable handshake
A confident handshake helps impart a strong first impression on a new team or potential client, but it’s easier said than done. The actual handshake may be the simplest part – make it firm and two to five seconds long – but there is more to it. If the other person is higher in position, wait for them to initiate. Pay attention to other parts of your body, too: leave your other hand visible, stand straight, maintain eye contact…“And smile, take your time with everything, make sure you’re being congruent,” says De Brun.
Make eye contact the right way
We all know eye contact is the “number one” way to convey warmth, but there’s an art to doing this appropriately. “No one likes to be stared at,” he says. Instead, hold their gaze for only 50% of the time when you’re speaking, and 70% of the time while listening. And if you’re in a group meeting and somebody asks you a question, “hold their gaze for about three seconds,” suggests De Brun. “As you answer, make eye contact with the rest of the group to make everyone feel included.”

Do cultural research
When working with overseas companies, bear in mind that cultural differences in body language are vast and complicated – the last thing you want is an offended client because of an innocent gesture you’ve made! “It's always good to do a bit of cultural research and find out what is acceptable,” he advises. For example, you may be surprised to find that Swedes consider hands in pockets rude when speaking. Meanwhile in Japan, direct eye contact is considered rude and a bow is preferred over a handshake, with men keeping their hands to their sides, and women keeping theirs to the front. And in Thailand, people greet each other by putting both palms together in a prayer-like gesture at chest level and bowing slightly – the higher the hands, the more respect.

Body Language Don’ts

Be oblivious to your own body language
Many gestures, such as eye-rolling and arm-crossing, are reflexive in nature even though they have bad rep. “People continue to do them because they are unaware. A friend of mine tends to roll her eyes at everything – it’s just a habit but others may think she’s arrogant,” he shares. When rehearsing for a presentation or an interview, a good way to become more aware of your own body language is by recording yourself on tape, which also helps you pick up on subtle habits such as slouching (associated with insecurity), nodding too much (a sign of insincerity) and touching your face (indicating nervousness).

Smile too much
You can smile too much in a professional setting. “Generally, smiling shows you’re friendly and open,” he says. “But it can take away from your presentation when the topic is something serious, where grinning is not appropriate.” Make sure you smile at the right time instead. “You certainly shouldn’t be smiling when your boss is telling you, ‘The figures from last year are down again!” says De Brun.

While there are many complicated rules of body language, there’s only one golden rule when it comes to communication: be sincere. “Make sure what you say matches your body language,” says De Brun. “Being genuine will mean your sincerity will come across naturally through your body language.”

Want more career advice? Take these tips to ace your next job interview!
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