Imagine you see someone at work leaning back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head, and one foot on his desk.
On the surface he may appear to be casual and relaxed. However, his body language is actually communicating superiority or dominance.
If this man is not the boss, he is someone his co-workers need to watch out for, say Gerald I. Nierenberg and Henry H. Calero, authors of the book How to Read a Person Like a Book.
Nierenberg and Calero studied the meaning of non-verbal communication in business and found that a number of gestures which appear on the surface to be casual are in fact signs of dominance and aggression.
Such gestures also include straddling a chair or sitting with one leg over the arm of a chair.
If this seems far-fetched, you may want to ask yourself who appears casual in your workplace.
Is it the boss? A co-worker who seems to rub people the wrong way? A junior employee who likes to challenge authority?
If a junior employee uses such gestures it may be only when the boss isn’t around. If the boss happens by, the employee may “snap to attention.”
Notice the non-verbal communication in your workplace, but don’t assume from a single gesture that someone is communicating dominance or aggression.
A particular gesture may be a habit, or it may have an entirely different meaning for the person making it.
Instead of trying to read an individual gesture, watch for a group of gestures communicating a similar message. Also notice the circumstances in which particular gestures are used.
For example, does someone only use dominance gestures during a negotiation or in the presence of certain people? If so, those gestures may be more than just a habit.
Should you use dominance gestures yourself? In a negotiation, such gestures may help to convey that you are confident.
However, if you would not verbally challenge your boss or someone else in a position of authority, you should not challenge them through your gestures either unless you are prepared to face the consequences.
Following are a few examples of gestures commonly used in business settings and the meanings they may communicate. Additional gestures can be found in Nierenberg and Calero’s How to Read a Person Like a Book, as well as other books on body language.
Gesture: “What It Says”
Arms crossed: “I’m afraid of you” OR “I disagree with you.”
Head resting on hand: “I’m bored.”
Head tilted: “I’m interested in what you are saying” OR “I don’t understand.”
Index finger along cheek, other fingers curled around chin: “I’m not impressed.”
Pinching bridge of nose, closed eyes: “I’m concerned.”
Touching nose: “I’m not sure.” OR “I’m lying.”
Showing palms: “I’m open.”
Clenched hands, thumbs rubbing: “I’m anxious.”
Tugging at ear: “Stop talking. It’s your turn to listen.”
Rubbing eye: “I don’t see it.”
Steepling with fingers: “I’m confident.”
Rubbing back of neck: “I’m frustrated.”
Touching throat: “I’m anxious.”
Touching chest: “I really mean it.”
Unbuttoning jacket: “I’m open to what you’re saying.”
Fidgeting: “I’m bored.”
Straddling chair or leg over arm of chair: “I don’t have to follow the rules.”
Seated with foot kicking: “I’m bored.”
Leaning back, fingers laced behind head: “I’m the king of the castle.”
Remember, a particular gesture may be nothing more than a habit, or a physical reaction to something. For example, someone may rub his eye because he is tired or having a problem with his contact lens. Likewise, your co-worker may cross her arms as a habit, or because she is feeling cold. And beware of calling anyone a liar just because he rubs his nose. It might be itchy!
However, when it comes to your own body language, realize that certain gestures you make may be interpreted negatively by other people.
It’s smart to be aware of what messages you are communicating – intentionally or not.