Did you know that no matter how carefully you choose your words or clothing, there are small behaviors that can sabotage your professional communication? No matter how many times you tweak that PowerPoint presentation to perfection, you can kill the positive message you are trying to convey with bad body language. Here are five ways you may be distracting from the confident, professional image you want to convey, and how to fix each.
1. Avoiding eye contact
Avoiding eye contact can send the message that you lack confidence or have low self-esteem.
If you are looking instead at your phone or laptop while engaged in conversation, you are basically telling others that they are not important.
How to fix it:
When speaking with others, don’t look down at your phone. Close the apps and texts that can distract you. Look at the person you are speaking with and make eye contact, but don’t stare. If it feels awkward or you are staring too intensely, break eye contact every few seconds and look away slightly to the side before shifting back to eye contact. Also, if you are speaking to a group of people, don’t look at one person only. Shift your focus from one person to another throughout your presentation. This will keep everyone engaged. If you feel a bit shy, try looking at the bridge of their nose. It can look like you are looking into their eyes but may be easier for you.
2. Excessive fidgeting
Fidgeting during a conversation or during a meeting can be very distracting for others. Even if you are not aware you’re doing it, it is likely that others in the room are picking up on it.
Some people claim that slight fidgeting during meetings helps them focus better. However, excessive fidgeting, such as shaking your legs or feet so much that others can hear it across the room is different. It can seem that you are agitated or bored. It also might say that you are not comfortable with the conversation and have strong feelings that you are not sharing.
How to fix it:
If you are guilty of excessive fidgeting during meetings, check yourself periodically.
If you find you are fidgeting a lot during a meeting, interrupt the behavior by doing something else instead. If you are fidgeting excessively with your hands (rapping the table with your fingers, for example), clasp your hands together. If you are shaking your legs under the table, cross your legs. It can also help to breathe deeply to relax.
3. Crossing your arms
I am guilty of this one and have heard mixed reviews on this behavior. Some say it makes people seem closed off, while others say it is simply a comfortable position.
When polling others, I got such a strong response that I decided to include it. Peers and friends shared that it seems the person they are speaking with is skeptical or in disagreement when they cross their arms. Since some people have such a negative perception of this body language, it is worth considering.
How to fix it:
If you decide to take this to heart, find another comfortable position for your arms. If you are sitting, lace your fingers with your hands on the table. This works if you are standing as well.
Also, if you are standing, placing your hands on your hips can be comfortable. If you feel compelled to cross your arms, take note of how receptive you are to the message being shared. It might be that you do indeed have some resistance to the proposal.
4. Watching the clock
I once interviewed a woman who looked at the clock every few minutes during our interview. It was so frequent that it became glaringly obvious. I got the sense that she was not really interested in being there. Looking at the clock or your watch sends the message that you would rather be somewhere else instead.
How to fix it:
If you find that you are distracted by the clock, try to position yourself so that it is not so tempting to look at. If you truly need to watch the time, apologize and explain the situation. If you must step out to put money in a parking meter or meet with the company Vice President and cannot be late, your conversation partner will understand.
5. Failing to give listening feedback cues
Simply listening to someone talk without giving any indication you have heard them can leave them wondering if you are paying attention at all. Your conversation partner may think you are daydreaming or thinking about something else completely. You may come across as completely uninterested.
How to fix it:
When listening during a conversation, occasionally nod your head or give appropriate facial expressions. This tells the speaker that you are engaged in the conversation and are following along with what they are sharing.
If you want others to know that you are confident, engaged, and open to ideas, pay attention to what you are doing with your body when you talk with them. This includes your eyes, too.
Ask yourself what message you are sending and if it is in line with what you want others to see.
You may need to continually check and adjust, but over time you will naturally convey confident and engaged body language.
Leigh Espy, PMP, SPC, CSM, is the author of “Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effective, Focused, and Produce Results.” She has over 15 years of project management experience with a primary focus on IT project management and has led multimillion dollar international projects and corporate strategy initiatives. Leigh also coaches and mentors project managers and those making a move to a project management career. You can find out more about Leigh at ProjectBliss and LeighEspy.com. Leigh writes about communication and project methodologies.