The way someone looks, the way they stand, the way they sit, the way they dress – all of these say something about that person.
If we take the time to look and observe with interest we can understand and appreciate so much about a person without them even saying a word.
I believe this goes even further beyond just how we are that particular day – it reaches back into our past experiences and lifestyle, depicting some of our upbringing and beliefs about ourselves.
Just as you can train a climbing plant to take a particular shape, our daily experiences train our demeanor over time and over years and become expressed in our body and our physiology.
A man has just walked past me, slim build, quite tall with an easy relaxed walk; his body and back are quite upright and his shoulders relaxed and held back – my impression of him is that he is quite confident and purposeful, intelligent and successful and this is further confirmed by his confident eye contact with me and then looking away as he engages with a colleague.
Of course I have no way of confirming any of my assumptions – however they are my perceptions just from a brief glance and therefore my reality.
There are many other pieces of information that I am using – the environment, location and setting, his attire and laptop computer that he is carrying, so many things that I am drawing on in an instant to assess/interpret about this total stranger.
The importance of physiology
Many texts state that it only takes 6 seconds to form a first impression; I think it may be even briefer than this! There is so much information on offer for us to read if we want to – and many of us do this unconsciously and automatically.
The impact of how we look and act effect every interaction that we have, and when I ask people to consider the impact that they personally have – they very often look a little confused and admit that they do not give it much thought – let alone be aware and able to identify the specific things that they do and the messages they convey.
I know when first meeting people my husband creates a good impression by turning his whole body towards them and smiling with totally open gestures with his arms and hands. I also know when this is accompanied by slight anxiety as he rocks back ever so slightly on his heels and draws his breath in.
As I have been sitting here (a hotel in Oxford) writing this article, I have noticed some people arriving for an appointment – interestingly I have concluded that it is for the same interview/appointment, and I have become curious as there does not seem to be any similarity between the people involved – in fact they seem to be very diverse and from many backgrounds – ethnic, occupational and social.
I am becoming increasingly inquisitive about what is about to take place and am unable to curb my curiosity – so when a guy holding a list and enquiring after people’s names passes by, I ask him what is about to take place.
It transpires that he represents an organisation offering psychometric qualifications and the people I have observed are random members of the public who have volunteered to be subjects for candidates on which to practice psychometric assessment! – hence the amount of diversity I am observing.
As a coach in the corporate world, a lot of my time is spent helping individuals achieve their career goals. Physiology plays a huge part in my sessions. There are two sides to this, the impact that the person (the coachee) I’m coaching has on me as coach and of course the impact that I have as a coach on them.
The dynamic between the two will always influence the coaching outcome. The body language and physiology of the coachee is a great source of information; it is an intrinsic part of the verbal communication and may support or not what is being said, and of course it may be telling me something that the coachee is not saying.
A recent coaching session, comes to mind, with a very engaged and proactive coachee, by this I mean someone who is focused on their goals and is fully taking part in the coaching process with openness, honesty and proactively taking action between sessions.
I arrived to find the coachee sitting quietly and was able to observe them for a few seconds before they became aware of me; I was immediately struck by a sense of anxiety, tension and sadness.
Our conversation started and no reference was made to how the coachee was feeling, my sense of their state persisted and so I fed back how I was experiencing them.
What transpired was a session occupied mainly by a discussion about an incident that had recently happened and the way that this had adversely affected the coachee – my belief was that this was so important to the coachee that to discuss anything else would have been a less effective use of time as all of their thoughts were clearly preoccupied with this anxious state.
So my advice here, is simply be self-aware. Be it if you’re interviewing somebody, giving an appraisal or having a major meeting with your managers, or even a one-to-one HR session.
If who you are meeting is really good at what they do (i.e. managing people), they will not only take note of what you say, but more importantly what you’re not saying. Your physiology says more about you than anything else.
You need to start with your own self-awareness and ask what messages you are sending out about yourself.
What is your body saying without you even verbalising your thoughts? Otherwise if you are not aware of your own physiology then your important meeting with your potential new employee, fellow colleague, or manager may take a different agenda to the one you were hoping to address.
Annie Richardson is director of Quantum Corporate Coaching.
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