I've often felt sceptical about 'body language' after hearing apparent experts superimpose spurious interpretations onto a person's physical posture and gestures. On a counselling course, for instance, a co-participant was challenged for defensiveness when she sat with her arms crossed. Apparently, she was simply feeling cold. A person's physical behaviour is influenced by a combination of personal, cultural and environmental factors. I do think therefore we should be careful when seeking to offer interpretations.
I was working with a Gestalt coach, as client, and commented that I felt anxious about approaching a forthcoming presentation to an executive team. Rather than suggesting we discuss this, the coach invited me to stand, role play walking into the team meeting and show him what feeling anxious might look like. As I enacted this scenario, he commented that I was holding my right hand across my chest, as if covering my heart. I was completely taken aback as I had no awareness of this until he mentioned it.
We then explored what ‘covering my heart’ might mean symbolically. I became aware that I characteristically presented to this particular team in highly detached, rational-analytical mode and never really expressed my heart, how passionate I felt about what I was presenting on, how much it mattered to me personally. The coach suggested role play the scenario with my right hand in a more open position, thereby ‘revealing my heart’, and moreover to rehearse speaking to the hearts rather than minds of the team.
The subsequent meeting with the executive team was very different to anything I had experienced previously. It felt like a more human than technical interaction, I received strong support for my proposal and felt supported personally too. The team was highly engaged and I left feeling confident and encouraged. The experience demonstrated powerfully to me that the body itself can convey valuable subconscious messages that lie outside of conscious awareness. So...body language? Pay attention, but do treat with care.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.