Body Language at Work

Michele Gargan, PsyD
Susan thinks Jack is a space cadet. Jack thinks Susan is a control freak. Elaine thinks Mary is indecisive. Mary thinks Elaine is impulsive. Fred overwhelms people with his presence. Nobody ever notices Charlie. How did Susan, Jack, Elaine and Mary come to these judgments? What is it in Fred and Charlie’s behavior that evokes such responses in others?

If these characterizations make you nod your head or even smile, you’re not alone. Most of us form such opinions and make such judgments about each other automatically, rarely pausing to consider what it is precisely that informs our impressions. If asked to back up our opinions of others with hard facts, we might cite such specifics as a not listening, nagging, spending too much time obsessing over details, ignoring facts, or speaking too softly. Most of us have been told by at least one parent, teacher, spouse, friend, or supervisor to sit up straight, make eye contact, slow down or speed up, use a softer tone of voice, or change any one of a thousand behaviors that give others a negative view of us.

Yet, the person with the too-soft voice can add extra decibels backed up by a straight spine and direct eye contact only to be told that he still appears weak and without authority. How is it that the behaviors observed as crucial to amending a negative impression can be corrected, only to have the negative impression persist? To answer this question, we need to go beneath the overt behaviors to the fundamentals of body movement. Our basic orientations to Space, Time, and Weight as well as the element of Flow are the building blocks for all body movement, including all nonverbal communication.

We use body movement to adapt to our environment and to interact with others. Sometimes our movements are perfectly attuned to the demands of a situation, such as in the smooth execution of a tennis stroke; and sometimes they are woefully out of step, such as in the spilling of a drink when trying to make a good impression on a blind date. Should we just take for granted that some people are graceful while others are clumsy? Or should we try to look at what makes a person in a given situation truly efficient and graceful? To assume the latter raises the possibility that observation, analysis, coaching, and practice can change a person’s movement style so that he or she can better cope with a situation and interact more effectively with others.

Let’s take a look at Susan who thinks Jack is a space cadet and at Jack who thinks Susan is a control freak. For the purposes of this cursory analysis, let’s consider the movement concept of Space. In body movement vocabulary, Space is correlated with attention. That is, a person’s orientation to Space spans the continuum from a laser-like zeroing in at one extreme and a fluid, peripheral focus at the other extreme. People with a direct Space orientation readily move to what they consider to be the essential elements of a situation, while those with an indirect or flexible Space orientation focus on all elements, essential or not, and attend to foreground and background equally.

If we observe both Susan and Jack as they walk to a podium to give a presentation, we might notice Susan’s gaze focusing in on the podium as she makes her way toward it, and Jack’s gaze moving about the room as he appears to meander toward his destination. Further, we might note that Susan’s entire body is aimed at the podium. She is looking at it, with arms and legs, head and torso all lined up and directed toward her target. Even if she moves her head to acknowledge and greet others, the rest of her body remains pointed in the direction in which she is walking. In contrast, Jack appears to be meandering toward the podium because his head, eyes, torso, and limbs are all working independently, separately oriented toward random parts of the room as he walks. Looking just at Susan and Jack’s Space orientations, we might conclude that Susan is focused and determined while Jack is vague and lackadaisical.

Of course, most people do not have such extreme orientations of directness or flexibility on the Space continuum. People generally have a predominant orientation, but they can also show some ability to move toward the opposite orientation when necessary. Yet even when a person makes a conscious effort to move directly when his natural orientation is flexible or flexibly when her natural orientation is direct, the dominant orientation shines through. For example, if Jack makes a determined effort to be direct by fixing his eyes on the podium as he walks toward it and by moving in a beeline path through the room, his wandering body parts will give him away as a basically indirect mover. Similarly, if Susan makes an effort to show flexibility by taking a circuitous path toward the podium and by allowing her eyes and head to change focus as she moves, the organization of her limbs and trunk as well as the precision of her movement from point to point along her path will reveal her innate directness.

If Susan and Jack try to work together on a project of any sort, their respective Space orientations will eventually clash. If they are unaware of the strength of the movement element in determining their ability to collaborate, they will likely reach an impasse in their work together. Susan may accuse Jack of adding new elements just as they are ready to complete the project. Jack may accuse Susan of sacrificing the creative process in her push to reach the project goal. They will become frustrated if they use only cognitively based verbal strategies to try to resolve their differences. But, if they are each aware of their Space orientations and of the powerful impact of movement elements on their work process, they will be able to focus on the nonverbal realm and find other ways of adjusting to each other’s work style.

Before discussing how Susan and Jack can make use of body movement awareness to support their collaboration, it is important to explore the Time and Weight movement factors. Let’s turn our attention to Elaine and Mary who embody the extreme ends of the Time continuum. Time as used in movement vocabulary reflects the notion of decision, when an action is initiated and when it is completed. To understand Time as we are using the term in this context, we must think in qualitative terms rather than in measured seconds or minutes. The Time continuum ranges from urgent to non-urgent, or from rushing to delaying. So, when we use the words quick and slow to define the poles of the Time continuum, we do not mean the amount of time an action takes but rather a person’s internal attitude toward however long it takes to complete an action.

To illustrate this rather confusing concept, let’s put Elaine and Mary side by side in a large, empty room. Now let’s ask them to maintain their side-by-side orientation while they walk around the room in a large circle matching their pace to a metronome that we will set at a specific tempo. First let’s set a quickstep tempo, like a Sousa march. If we watch carefully, we will notice that Elaine anticipates the beat and steps directly on it or a even bit ahead of it while Mary reacts to the beat, stepping on the tail end of it or even a bit after it. This is subtle, but quite noticeable. Elaine will appear to be moving crisply with the metronome while Mary will appear to be lingering in each step. Let’s reset the metronome to a slow funeral dirge tempo and continue to observe. Even though the cadence is slow and Elaine and Mary are moving at exactly the same rate of speed, Elaine will convey the impression of haste or urgency while Mary will appear to be moving in a sustained and leisurely manner. Here again we see that just slowing down or speeding up in terms of clock-measured time does not have the intended effect of truly changing one’s pace.

When Elaine and Mary work together, their respective Time orientations can be at odds with each other. Elaine may become impatient with how long it takes Mary to do anything, even if Mary is moving quickly. Elaine’s staccato speech style may cause Mary to feel constantly rushed or pressured. Mary’s legato speech and the sustained quality of all of her movements may provoke impatience in Elaine. These styles of urgency and delay, when not recognized as innate movement orientations, can cause frustration and intolerance in any partnership. In our fast-paced world, a slow Time orientation can be judged as inefficient or lazy while a quick Time orientation can be seen as decisive and effective. Yet a quick approach when dealing with emotionally charged issues may add fuel to the fire. There are times when a situation requires a person to utilize broader range on the Time continuum than is her usually tendency.

Now let’s consider Weight as embodied by Fred and Charlie. Just as Space reflects attention and Time reflects decision, Weight reflects intention. In movement terms, Weight has nothing to do with how heavy or light a person’s body is in pounds. Rather it reflects the forcefulness of a person’s impact in a situation. The Weight continuum extends from strong, as represented by Fred’s style, to light, as represented by Charlie’s. Weight in movement terms has to do with how a person uses his or her body weight, however stout or slim he or she may be.

Consider Fred at five feet eight inches tall and one hundred fifty pounds. Fred’s handshake is vigorous and powerful to the point of causing pain. His heels thud on the floor as he walks, and dishes and cutlery clatter when he eats a meal. In contrast, Charlie, who is six feet tall and weighs two hundred fifty pounds, has a light, almost delicate handshake. He appears to float across the floor when he walks, and he rarely makes a sound when handling any object, even loose change. Their respective uses of their bodies as they assert themselves in the environment creates two distinct impressions: overwhelming presence in Fred’s case and virtual invisibility in Charlie’s.

If these two individuals try to work together, they will both be uncomfortable. Fred may feel he is doing all the work while Charlie may feel overpowered in any negotiation. Charlie may cringe as he watches people recoil from Fred’s booming voice while Fred may constantly prod Charlie to speak up. Charlie may back down too quickly in a negotiation while Fred may insist beyond what is reasonable. If they are working on a physical task together, Fred may damage moving parts with his strength while Charlie may be unable to use his body weight and gravity effectively when applying physical force.

To further complicate the discussion of inner movement orientations as they inform and sometimes control our outward behavior, we must now move to a three dimensional view of the Space, Time, and Weight factors. Everyone has a dominant affinity in Space (direct or flexible), Time (quick or slow), and Weight (strong or light). Imagine a person who is indirect, quick, and strong. Imagine someone who is indirect, quick, and light. The eight possible combinations of the Space, Time, and Weight factors are designated by the words punch, slash, dab, flick, press, wring, glide, and float. In your mind’s eye, picture someone doing each of the actions suggested by these words and you will have a better idea of what we are talking about.

Let’s suppose that Susan’s dominant style is punch (direct, quick, and strong), and Jack’s is wring (indirect, slow, and strong). They can most likely meet in the Weight affinity and use that as a means to adjust to each other. Similarly, if Elaine is dab (direct, quick, and light) and Mary is glide (direct, slow, and light), they should focus on the Space affinity as a means of connecting with each other. How about Fred, who is press (direct, slow, and strong), and Charlie, who is float (direct, slow, and light)? They can meet in both Space and Time factors. If all of us remain aware of our inner movement orientations as having real power in alL interactions, we can begin to explore a new realm of strategies and techniques for collaborating, negotiating, and joining with each other in our daily lives.
The movement factor we have not yet discussed is Flow. The word seems to speak for itself. Flow is about progression, how a person gets going and keeps going. Flow can be free or bound. Flow initiates action and reflects a person’s inner attitude toward moving. Persons with an affinity toward free Flow appear to be ready to go, and they will move with abandon. They are focused on moving, not stopping. Persons with an affinity toward bound Flow have a quality of holding back, controlling their movement, and knowing exactly how and when they will stop. Picture light Weight and bound Flow. Picture strong Weight and free Flow. Picture all the possibilities of Weight, Space, Time and Flow and you will see the breadth and the richness that body movement brings to all interactions.

Every year thousands of managers, executives, and employees attend various kinds of communication skills training to become more effective communicators. In most training seminars, discussions of body language address posture, gesture, facial expression, eye contact, proximity, and other commonly taught “correct” uses of the body in communication. But body language training must go deeper. It takes awareness of the basic elements of body movement and knowledge of your own movement affinities to utilize and expand the range of body language. The goal is genuineness and flexibility in communication, to slow down and become more observant of self and others, and to consciously align thought, feeling, and action. Just as there is vocabulary and syntax in verbal communication, there is vocabulary and syntax in body language. All effective language requires a broad vocabulary, logical syntax, fluid phrasing, connections and transitions, and appropriate diction. These can be taught, practiced, and developed in both the verbal and nonverbal realms.

Obviously a brief exposition such as this can only begin to define the concepts of movement theory. Just as words are inadequate in evoking the experience of listening to Beethoven, so do words fall far short in describing body movement at its most basic level. Suffice it to say that in order to understand what has been presented here, you must experience the movement elements on a proprioceptive level—that is, deep in the body where the muscle sense receptors reside. Movement training at this fundamental level is an invaluable tool for all interactions. Approximately 80% of all expressed and perceived communication derives from body language. It is truly the foundation of nonverbal communication. The broader the movement repertoire, the more we have control over our body language and the better we are able to adapt to and cope with our world and the people in it.

2017-04-20T14:31:39+00:00