With the elections nearing and televised debates viewed by tens of millions of viewers around the world, much of the information communicated by the candidates is non-verbal. I have studied body language and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) for more than 20 years. Body language refers to our expressions, actions and behaviors as they relate to language and communications, whereas NLP is the model of creating a relationship between patterned behavior (action) and thoughts and experiences. As a reputation management specialist, I am focused on the importance of body language in managing perception for individuals at all levels of their career — from graduating students to executives to presidential candidates!
High profile executives and politicians are typically highly-trained to conceal certain feelings and bring others forward. They are keenly aware that they are judged not only by what they say but also how they say it. Here are some body language observations from the recent debates:
Both presidential candidates appear sensitive to and intentional about their use of eye contact. In the first presidential debate in Denver, President Obama was chastised for his lack of empathy and attention because he neglected to look his opponent squarely in the eye. Eye contact is an intimate gesture that signifies respect to one’s opponent. President Obama scored negative points for his apparent disregard and apathy for the forum and the discussion.
- ASK YOURSELF: What is my eye contact (or lack thereof) telling others about me? Could I be sending the message that I am not interested or don’t really care about them or what they are telling me? How is that perception consistent with how I want to be known?
Similarly, Governor Romney’s raising of his eyebrows and the pitch of his voice when flustered or excited can tell viewers that he is less than confident in his message. Often, candidates are trained to keep their eyebrows steady and end their sentences in a confirming, authoritative down-tone, so as not to appear to be unsure or asking a question.
- ASK YOURSELF: What are my facial expressions when someone is expressing a passionate point or is angry? Am I sending the message that I am unsure, concerned or insecure?
In the vice presidential debate, it was Vice President Joe Biden’s smirking and “inappropriate” laughing which cast a negative perception among many viewers. His behavior was perceived as mocking his opponent and disrespectful, earning him disfavor with some. Likewise, his opponent, Congressman Ryan, displayed deference in trying to manage his debate partner, causing some viewers to feel he was struggling to keep composure instead of argue an important point.
- ASK YOURSELF: Am I sending mixed messages? When I am supposed to be engaged and attentive? Am I sending the message that I’m defensive? Could my behavior send the perception that I am not confident and disrespectful? Is this how I want to be seen?
In the second presidential debate, we saw candidates sit, stand, approach each other and raise their voices in apparent frustration and anger. All the while, they recited facts and figures, stories and examples to illustrate their key points. Viewers across social media noted the body language more than the message, making it a challenge for political advisors across the board.
- ASK YOURSELF: Am I sitting while others are standing? Could this set the tone that I am taking a subservient role to them? What about the reverse — am I often standing when others are seated? This could send a message of intimidation and threat.
How am I sitting in my chair? Is my body turned away from my audience? I should strive to turn to face the person I am speaking to — with my head and my body — to show that I am engaged and respectful.
Are there body language cues that confuse you? Post them here and I’ll answer them.
Kelly de la Torre says
That is useful information especially helpful considering standing vs. sitting. What about in the situations where there are more people like where you have someone playing good cop and the other bad cop? Or a situation where you have one aggressive and the other one or more persons either neutral or acting disengaged or apathetic. What is the best way to handle that with your body language? Thanks!
Lida Citroen says
Thanks for the comment, Kelly. Groups offer a different dynamic for body language rules. Often, we see easy fixes: for instance, keeping a respectable space between you and the other person, not turning your back on those in the group and managing your posturing so as not to appear aggressive or overly self-focused. Body language tends to reveal what we’re truly feeling inside, so group dynamics require more transparency (as there are more eyeballs on you!) Remember — you can only control your own body language, but you can watch and learn from the body language of others in the group!