You’re at a community meeting, and you glance over at the woman standing next to you. She’s avoiding eye contact, looking distracted, frowning slightly, arms folded across her chest (or maybe fidgeting with her car keys), and shifting from one foot to the other. Would you walk right up to her and start chatting? My guess is no. You would most likely avoid interaction—or, minimally, you certainly would not actively seek it.
In order to be approachable (and dare I say it: likable), we must appear available and socially receptive to others. And positive body language is one of the most powerful means of communicating our openness to others as potential work associates, colleagues, or friends.
Approachability is an important, often-overlooked skill that not only makes your life more pleasant and interesting (grocery store check-out lines are some of my favorite places for brief, fun interactions!), but it also helps you to be more successful, both personally and professionally.
Everyone communicates using seven channels: facial expression, eye contact, posture, hand gestures, voice tone, voice loudness, and verbal content. Many of us know to pay close attention to the last component—the words we choose—but we pay little or no attention to how we’re delivering our messages. However, our bodies are actually revealing more about our messages than our voices ever do. Verifiable, replicatable studies show that if subjects are given the choice between what they hear (words and voice tone) and what they see (body language) when being given a “mixed message,” they go with what they see 100% of the time. And that’s why body language is critical in any communication endeavor.
In short, we tend to gravitate toward people who make us feel accepted, valued, important, and special. We like people who appear to understand us. We like people who support us and cheer us on to victory. We especially like people who listen to us. All of these traits are communicated through a complex set of behaviors, many of which are non-verbal, so let’s examine a few simple, easy, and instantly doable things we can practice to become more approachable through our positive body language.
Open facial expression, combined with leaning forward (just slightly) when listening. Open facial expression means that you deliberately look as if you’re giving your undivided attention to the person (or people) you’re speaking with, that you’re taking in what they’re saying, and that you are not making any dismissive judgments as you’re listening—even if you plan to disagree after they’re finished. The best way to develop your open facial expression is by practicing in a mirror until you can sense what it feels like. Why? Because some people unconsciously frown or look worried as they’re listening, which can shut down communication. By cultivating an open facial expression, people will be much more relaxed and receptive around you.
In leaning forward, you signal that you’re interested, engaged, and actively listening to others. Most people know what this action feels like, because we do it naturally when we’re truly “present” in a conversation. Leaning forward is a cross-culturally universal component of human body language, which encourages the other person to open up—and we tend to like and trust people who appear to truly listen to us.
Assertive eye contact. It’s important to look people directly in the eyes when you’re interacting with them. There are actually two times when it’s essential: when you’re giving instructions, and when you’re sharing information. But even in general, in order for people to feel as if you’re connecting with them, you must make eye contact. By doing so, you’re showing that you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re interested in what they’re saying, you’re confident about your own personal power, and you’re an open, friendly person. Incidentally, it’s also important to break eye contact, just a tiny bit, or you’ll look intimidating and aggressive. Ideal, assertive eye contact involves looking directly at the person (mostly) and breaking eye contact (just a little).
Powerful posture. Your posture counts for a lot. Studies show that people with good posture are seen as more successful, harder working, and more reliable. Relax your arms at your sides (or on your lap or tabletop, if sitting), bring your shoulders back, and place your feet slightly apart when standing, or directly on the floor when sitting. With your arms at your sides, rather than in your pockets or folded over your chest, you look open and non-judgmental, ready to receive others wholeheartedly. (And no matter what, avoid playing with your cuticles, jingling the keys in your pocket, or any other form of fidgeting.) Putting your shoulders back signals that you’re comfortable with yourself, able to “own your own space,” confident, and unafraid. Standing with your feet slightly apart makes you look stable and competent. And placing your feet directly on the floor when sitting signals that you’re relaxed and self-assured.
As a brief aside, women often ask me about the “shoulders back” tip. Here’s the common concern: you don’t want to appear as if you’re sticking your chest out. Plus, “the girls” are too big, too small, too flat, too round—trust me, I’ve heard it all! But I invite you to make peace with your chest, and I assure you that, no matter what you think, you’ll look far better if you put your shoulders back and stand proudly than if you slouch.
Subtle mirroring. Mirroring means reflecting what another person is doing or feeling right now. The simplest description is this: Sit like they sit; speak like they speak. It often happens automatically with highly empathic people (women are far better at mirroring than men), and truly great communicators use this technique consistently. If mirroring is done the right way, the other person will unconsciously feel that you and they are similar, that you understand them, and that you are trustworthy. In a nutshell, you want the other person to identify with you.
Mirroring is best done in very understated, simple ways, and I must add a word of caution: you certainly shouldn’t copy everything another person does—if you’re too obvious, it may seem like you’re mimicking them or that you’re being duplicitous. Instead, subtly adopting just a few of their postures and gestures will show that the two of you are on the same wavelength.
Warm smile. In every culture around the world (including those that have been isolated from other cultures via geographical barriers), smiling is the universal signal for friendliness. There are countless studies on the positive effects of smiling: lowered cortisol levels, increased serotonin levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased blood flow to the brain—for both the smiler and the smilee. What’s more, smiling is literally contagious: a recent study shows that it’s nearly impossible for a person to look at a smiling face and not smile themselves. In short, smiling makes you and everyone around you feel better. A smile can help you disarm an opponent, negotiate a contract, connect with a stranger, lighten tension, warm a heart, offer encouragement, and make you appear relaxed and comfortable in your own skin.
So there you have it. Translated, when we’re communicating with others—no matter what the situation—how we look as we’re interacting is just as important (perhaps more important) as what we say, if we intend to be understood, to connect on a meaningful level, and to be approachable.
“Never underestimate the power of body language!”
—Ursula, from The Little Mermaid