I knew our son was an introvert, but I started to get nervous when in kindergarten he often chose not to interact with others. Early one September afternoon, my son and I were walking home from school, and I noticed that even though kids passing by us said “hi” or “see you tomorrow,” he said nothing.
He just stared straight ahead and kept walking. I was both baffled and annoyed by his rudeness. When I asked him about it, he answered that he “didn’t know the kids so why would he say hi?”
I was stunned.
It turns out that not all people are wired with the communication gene.
Temple Grandin, Ph.D., an accomplished author, scientist and well-known adult with autism, says that she has felt like an alien dropped on the planet. She’s had to learn how to read and interact with others because none of it came naturally.
Individuals on the Autism spectrum, especially Asperger’s and Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVD), often struggle with understanding how to communicate with others and can benefit from body language awareness. Since more than half (60-93%) of our communication is nonverbal, understanding how to read and interpret body language can be a real game changer.
Do you posses the socially awkward gene?
Are you struggling to be a strong communicator?
Would you love a body language makeover?
Perhaps a body language challenge is in order!
Try implementing these seven body language hacks over the span of one week and see what happens.
Okay. Let’s do this.
Day One: The Head Tilt
Have you ever been accused of being too cold or stiff? If so, this tip is your new best friend. When people slightly tilt their head to one side while listening or speaking, it nonverbally shows others that you are listening.
Try asking the question, “Did you hear that?”, and watch how people tilt their head to listen.
This subtle nonverbal technique shows that you are listening intently, and it also helps soften the information being shared.
Try it! Practice saying the same phrase twice such as “I’m sorry, you were not invited to the party.” Make sure to keep your voice tone the same and the first time you say it keep your head straight and the second time you say it tilt your head to the side.
See the difference? Most dogs I’ve met already know this technique and use it often. Time for you to start using it too!
Day Two: The Triple Nod
Many people have a hard time keeping a conversation going, which can be even more difficult if you are socially awkward. Time for you to begin implementing the triple nod.
When someone is speaking, try nodding slowly three times in a row (1…2…3…).
By doing this, you not only show engagement, but you also encourage the other person to keep talking (introverts rejoice!). Think of it as the nonverbal form of an ellipsis that cues the other person to tell you more.
The secret sauce of this tip is that it helps take the pressure off the non-speaker and allows more information to be gathered. More information typically means an easier conversation.
Remember, however, that the key to this body language hack is to nod slowly or else you will come across as impatient or a bobble head!
Day Three: Power Gazing
Making eye contact with others is incredibly important. Ever heard the advice, “Look people in the eye when speaking with someone?”
Eye contact helps build connection, which is important in any relationship. However, eye contact can also be very uncomfortable for many people with NVD or on the Autism spectrum (because people’s eyes don’t stay still!). Studies show that we need to make about 60 to 70% eye contact when we speak with others to be viewed as competent and trustworthy–more than 70% comes across as creepy or judgmental and less than 60% seems a bit shifty.
If a person has difficulty making eye contact because of Autism or Asperger’s, it might help to engage in a power gaze (looking at the eyes and forehead). It might also mean saying something like, “I apologize, but sometimes I listen better if I look away while talking.” Being honest and bringing the challenge to the other person’s attention helps explains the discrepancy they might be feeling.
Day Four: Power Posing
When you feel socially awkward, your body language usually shows it. Let’s face it, it’s hard to look confident when you’re having a hard time communicating!
Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that when athletes win a race, the more expansive their body language and when athletes lose a race, the more defeated their body language. Want to look like a winner? Roll your shoulders back, firmly plant your feet, open your chest and keep your head up. The more confident your body looks, the more confident you will be perceived as. This is called high body power—taking up space with your body.
In brief, if you stand in a confident pose, you will look more confident. This is big news for everyone, but it’s especially critical to understand for anyone who is socially awkward.
Day Five: Fronting
Time to show some nonverbal respect!
Think of a time when you felt really heard. Was the listener fully facing you? Probably!
Fronting is how we angle our body‒it means aiming our toes, torso and top towards the person with whom we are communicating. When you turn your entire body towards someone, they feel your engagement, creating a connection.
Try fronting by making an effort to really face someone when speaking with them and see if you feel the difference. If you are in a chair or seated position, actually turn or move the chair to directly face the person. And here’s the bonus to fronting–not only does the person feel respected when you are fronting, you also tend to pay better attention. Talk about a win win!
Day Six: Blocking Behaviors
This can be a hard habit to break!
When we feel vulnerable or threatened, we subconsciously protect ourselves by putting something between our body and the person or thing that is making us feel uncomfortable.
We block by crossing our arms, clutching our purse or books, holding a drink in front of us, closing our eyes, holding a pillow in front of us while sitting on a couch… you get the idea.
Although we feel safer, others often perceive us as defensive and low power.
Understanding that the way we hold our body changes how others see us is an important concept to grasp. Pay attention to how you hold your body.
Try letting your arms hang loosely at your sides until this position begins to feel natural. This takes time and work (and often requires a trusted friend) to help remind and point out when you are reverting to old blocking behaviors.
Day Seven: Microexpressions
Get to know them!
The definition of a microexpression is a very brief, involuntary facial expression made during an intense emotional feeling. There are seven of them, and they are universal expressions that all people exhibit:
Being able to read them on other faces is like seeing the world in HD‒it often feels like cracking a secret code!
Individuals with NVD or on the Autism spectrum often struggle to pick up on facial expressions, so understanding and practicing them can be a revelation. When someone is able to see the facial movements that indicate one of these emotions, they can learn how to appropriately respond to the person’s emotional state. Eureka!
Mastering this skill is life changing and can assist with expressing empathy. This takes time and practice but it is well worth the effort!
Whew, you made it! Adding one skill at a time helps to gradually increase your body language awareness and mastery. It not only takes time and patience, but it also requires lots of practice. Keep at it and watch your communication skills soar.
P.S. Fast forward to my son. He is in high school now and has a much better grasp on the whole “communication thing.” He doesn’t fall on the Autism Spectrum or even into the Nonverbal Learning Disability category, but he is quite logical and has certainly benefitted from these body language hacks. Some of the social cues I thought nothing of were new concepts for my son and required awareness and practice. Most great things do.
This is article is written by Kristin Bock, a Certified Body Language Trainer with the Science of People. Kristin lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her awesome husband, 3 cool kids and 3 spirited chickens. She considers herself to be a communication architect and loves to teach people the foundations of body language. After 20 plus years in the disability field, she has made some wonderful friends and has a particular affinity for helping caregivers and socially awkward folks. She can be reached at: bodylanguageblueprints.com
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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