Body language in the workplace

Recently, a client asked me to create a workshop on body language awareness as part of a wider ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiative. The idea was that making people more aware of each other’s non-verbal signals would help to promote respect in the workplace. At first I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, but the client convinced me: “Start with the body language stuff you do in your communication coaching and take it from there – you just need to get people talking.”

Having now run dozens of these workshops in a culturally diverse, UK based organisation, I’ve gained some fascinating insights into the etiquette of the modern workplace. The feedback has at times been humbling, like the self-confessed cynic who said, “I only came along because I had to, but actually this was the most valuable session I’ve attended in years.”

So what have I learned? In the absence of any defined rules of engagement, there is clearly a lot of confusion about non-verbal communication at work. At different extremes, some people are totally unaware of how their behaviour could cause offence, while others are so frightened of getting it wrong they avoid personal contact wherever possible. In today’s diverse workplaces, colleagues are increasingly confused about how to relate to each other.

Take for example something as simple as a standard business greeting. As part of the workshop, I ask everyone to greet each other with a handshake. Then we discuss the experience. As you would expect, people talk about firmness of grip and whether or not someone looks you in the eye when shaking your hand. But what happens when men and women greet each other? From a cultural point of view, some colleagues will not want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex for religious reasons (e.g. Orthodox Jews, Muslims). It is important to be aware of this to avoid potential embarrassment; a handshake should never be forced. Yet cultural differences aside, some men when shaking a woman’s hand will opt for a brief grasp of the fingers, as if they are about to go down on one knee in a chivalric bow.

Why does this happen? The men who did this told me that it was because they felt that ‘women’s hands are more delicate’. So I would then ask the women how they wanted men to shake their hands. Invariably the answer was in the same way as a man – properly but without excessive force. Interestingly, some women said they often avoided shaking another woman’s hand because it did not feel ‘natural’ to do so. Unless they know the other woman well, they would usually avoid physical contact and simply greet each other with a smile and a nod. In some cases, this has resulted in women course participants resolving that in future, they would make a point of shaking hands with other women.

Eye contact is another fascinating subject. The Western cultural norm is to look at someone when you are listening to them. Yet there are many parts of the world e.g. parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where it is considered disrespectful to do so, particularly when listening to an elder. One participant who was brought up in Nigeria described having been severely reprimanded by his grandfather for exactly this reason. Yet when he came to the UK, he realized that his ‘respectful’ avoidance of eye contact was not helping him in job interviews. Getting people to share their personal experiences in this way has led to many ‘light bulb’ moments.

By far the best experiences have been running the workshop on location for a whole team. Managers have told me that experiencing the workshop together was a bonding experience that enabled team members to discuss office behavior in a non-threatening way, when previously it had been in the ‘too difficult’ category. For example, it enabled a manager to talk to a team member about their habit of getting too close to people and why some people found this invasive of their personal space. (It turned out that the ‘space invader’ in question had hearing difficulties.) I’ve even been asked to run follow up sessions so that the people who missed the original training didn’t feel left out. How often does that happen for workplace training?

The power of mindfulness

Last year, I completed a coaching foundation course with Third Space Coaching, an experience I would recommend to anyone who wants to improve their ability to connect with people, as a communicator, a counsellor or simply as a human being. For me the most profound learning from the course was to experience how powerful it is to be truly listened to by another human being. Whether at work or in our personal lives, attention deficit syndrome has become the new normality for social interaction. Instead of listening to each other with full attention, we are increasingly distracted by our mobile devices, our personal agendas, our increasing disconnection from humanity.

During the course, we practiced mindfulness, the act of ‘being present’ for each other. When we listened to someone’s story, we did so with full concentration and attentiveness, our feet firmly planted on the floor facing the speaker, our vision focused on their non-verbal signals, are minds emptied of all thoughts except those inspired by the  unfolding narrative.

Since the course, I have tried to apply my learning to my working life, not always with success, but in a conscious effort to improve listening as a core communication skill.

I was reminded of my experience while taking part in the PurpleBeach launch experience last week. Listening to Tara Sheahan, co-founder of the Conscious Global Leadership Programme, was an inspirational experience. Here is the text of an article that I wrote for the PurpleBeach website that describes Tara’s story, how a tick bite set her on the path to discover the power of mindfulness:

“Tara Sheahan considered herself to be gifted with good genes. As well as being a wife and mother, she was an high level athlete, runner, and skier. But when at age 35, she contracted Lyme’s disease from a tick bite, she suddenly found herself at risk of losing her whole sense of identity. When she tried to run, every joint of her body screamed. When she tried to cook, the smallest pan was painful to hold.

What didn’t help was Tara’s sense of needing to be perfect. Being sick felt like being broken, useless. She hated asking anyone for help, found it painful to admit she couldn’t do something. Looking back, Tara likens the state to being like a caterpilllar in chrysalis. As Tara describes it, “there’s a stage when it becomes goo, loses all identity, becomes non-identifiable – that’s how I felt.”

Eventually, Tara realised that her negative thoughts were affecting her immune system. She learned that becoming a butterfly was about letting go and asking for help. That meant shedding the concept that her self worth derived from being an athlete. Instead, Tara set herself a new goal – to become great at loving her kids.

The experience of loving and feeling loved was like suddenly feeling free, even though she was still completely exhausted from her illness.

As she began to heal herself with positive thinking, Tara studied the relationship between mind and body. Inspired by John Sarno’s book ‘Mind Body Prescription’, Tara learned that the body has its own ecology; how negative thoughts secrete cortisol and positive thoughts secrete dopamine. She became fascinated with how, even when you are having a great time outdoors in the sunshine, your mind will suddenly ask you, “oh no did I lock the car?”.  She concluded that because the mind wants to keep us safe and so it constantly worries. Yet the effect of that is damaging to our wellbeing.

With these insights, Tara began a new journey to learn how to change her thoughts. On a 21 day ‘silent trek’ in India, she discovered how easy it is to become overcome by worry and self-criticism, constantly comparing oneself to others because we think they are more beautiful, more talented, more intelligent that we are. It’s so easy to always think, “I’m never good enough.”

Tara discovered that through ‘mindfulness’, it is possible to become at ease with ourselves. For example, simply by learning how to control our breathing, we can control feelings of stress and anxiety in our lives. Through daily practice of simple exercises to connect mind and body, we can all cultivate a sense of wellbeing and joy.”