Coaching Body Language in the C-Suite


The senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company is speaking at a corporate communication conference. He’s a polished presenter with an impressive selection of organizational “war stories” delivered with a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor. The audience likes him. They like him a lot.

Then, as he finishes his comments, he folds his arms across his chest and says, “I’m open for questions. Please, ask me anything.”

Suddenly, there is a shift of energy in the room – from engagement to uncertainty. The audience that was so attentive only moments ago is now somehow disconnected and unable to think of anything to ask.

I was at that event. As one of the presenters scheduled to follow the executive, I was seated at a table onstage with a clear view of the entire room. And the minute I saw that single gesture, I knew exactly how the audience would react.

Later I talked with the speaker (who didn’t realize he’d crossed his arms) and interviewed members of the audience (none of whom recalled the gesture, but all of whom remembered struggling to come up with a question).

So what happened – how could a simple arm movement that none of the participants were even aware of have had such a potent impact?
And what does this mean to the executives you coach?

In preparing for an important meeting most executives concentrate on what to say, memorizing crucial points, and rehearsing their presentation so they will come across as credible and convincing.

But too few executives know that the people they’re speaking to will be subliminally evaluating their credibility, confidence, likeability and trustworthiness and that their evaluations will be only partially determined by what is said. In fact, many leaders are nonverbally illiterate – completely out of touch with the effect their body language has on others. The human brain is hard-wired to read and respond to nonverbal signals, but these leaders don’t know that the process is taking place and are unequipped, therefore, to use it to their advantage.

Body language is a key part of leadership effectiveness, and often the decisive element in that elusive quality called “executive presence.” The use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions and eye contact can enhance, support, weaken or even sabotage any verbal message.

The executive who addressed that conference in New York made a basic body language blunder when his gesture didn’t match his words. And it is this kind of misaligned signaling that an audience will pick up on more quickly and critically than almost any other. When a leaders’ body language doesn’t match his or her words (for example, dropping eye contact and glancing around the room while trying to convey candor, rocking back on heels when talking about the organization’s solid future or – like the SVP — folding arms across chest while declaring openness) the verbal message is lost.

Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. So, in a very real way, whenever leaders say one thing and their gestures indicate another, they simply don’t make sense. Then, if forced to choose between what was said, and how someone looked when saying it, audiences will instantly and unconsciously discount the verbal content in favor of what they saw.

But why did the conference speaker make that folded-arm gesture? Did he really not want questions? Was he more comfortable standing that way? Was he cold?

I didn’t ask him, because (from a communication standpoint) it really didn’t matter. With nonverbal signals, it’s not how the sender feels that matters most; it is how the observer perceives how the sender feels. And, although there are cultural differences to take into account, crossing arms is almost always perceived as a closed sign of resistance.

Body language savvy is becoming part of an executive’s personal brand. In my speeches and seminars, I talk about how leaders send two sets of signals and how both are very important, but each is more important under certain circumstances.

For example, powerful people sit, stand, walk and gesture in ways that exude confidence, competence and status. These are the kind of signal leaders might want to send when addressing the Board of Directors. Leaders send power and authority signals by standing tall, actually expanding into space. You will notice, for instance, that high-status male executives at a conference table are likely to spread out their paperwork. They may put their arms on the back of other people’s chairs and even sit with their legs far apart.

But the most effective leaders also send nonverbal signals of warmth and empathy – especially when nurturing collaborative environments and managing change. The nonverbal signals that convey inclusiveness, likeability, and friendliness include open palm gestures, leaning slightly forward, giving people eye contact when they talk, nodding your head when someone is speaking, or tilting your head slightly to encourage them to speak more.

Since most of my clients are in organizations that are trying to move from a hierarchical command control structure to a flatter, more nimble, and more collaborative environment, I see a lot of senior managers who run into body language challenges. They are so used to having to project a strong persona that they don’t realize the power of letting the other set of (empathy) signals take over.

Of course, learning to align body language with intents and messages is only one side of the nonverbal coin. More business executives are learning not only how to send the right signals, but also how to read them.

Peter Drucker, the renowned author, professor and management consultant, understood this clearly. “The most important thing in communication,” he once said, “is hearing what isn’t said.”

In the boardroom, when people aren’t completely onboard with an initiative, leaders need to be able to recognize what’s happening – and to respond quickly. During the hiring process, the ability to read nonverbal cues can make the difference between a great hire and a big mistake. And knowing when a negotiating partner is bluffing is a skill well worth developing.

Good body language skills can help your executives influence and motivate direct reports, improve productivity, bond with audiences, present ideas with more authority and impact, and authentically project their personal brand of charisma.

That’s a powerful set of skills for any leader to develop.


Carol Kinsey GomanCarol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international speaker, executive coach, and author of “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.”
Connect with Carol on LinkedIn or follow on Twitter: @CGoman


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