Think of a time when you glimpsed a television programme in a language you didn’t understand. I bet that you quickly formed views about the personalities you saw and heard on screen – whether you liked them, would believe them or trust them.
You couldn’t have made those judgements based on what the personalities were actually saying. Rather, your view must have been driven by how they looked and how they sounded.
When conversing with people, we make judgements about them constantly. Of course they’re doing the same with us – probably more so when we’re answering their questions than at any other time.
You have to conclude that a big part of these judgements is due to what’s interpreted from voices, facial expressions and what people do with their bodies.
Experts debate how much each of these particular individual factors counts. Their relative importance can clearly differ from one person to another, and from one situation to another. But there’s universal agreement that the actual words uttered form only a part of what’s communicated when anyone is speaking.
It’s vital to take this into account when considering how we come across while being questioned. It can have a decisive effect on what people think, feel and do as a result of our answers.
It’s fair to say that some people naturally know how to project themselves with authority, impact and persuasiveness. But it’s also fair to say that this is something you can work at and improve.
This does not mean that there’s a fundamental need to change your values, beliefs or personality. It just means learning different ways of projecting the real you and enhancing what you already do.
Five common non-engagement arm positions to avoid
1. Don’t have your arms permanently by your sides. I call this the ‘Firing Squad Position’, because it looks as though the straight-down-arms person being questioned thinks they’re about to be shot. They tend to look wooden, uncomfortable and even scared.
2. Keep clear of the ‘Free Kick Defensive Wall’ position. During a free kick in football (soccer), defenders bunch together to block the kicker’s line of sight to the goal. They routinely clasp their hands in front of their groins. This protects them from being hurt in a particularly painful spot if the ball is kicked straight at them. It makes pain-avoiding sense. But it also makes the players look and feel defensive. Similarly, if you stand with your hands covering your groin when answering questions, you will look and feel equally defensive.
3. Don’t clasp your arms behind your back in what the military call ‘standing at ease’. Far from allowing you to come across ‘with ease’, this can signal that you’re not willing to fully engage. Senior male members of the British royal family often adopt this position when on walkabout to meet the ‘commoners’. It can give the impression: “I’m here because I have to be and I don’t want to fully connect with you.” This interpretation may be unfair, but appearances matter. In contrast, having your arms and hands up and open looks and feels as though you’re making a wholehearted effort to engage with those around you.
4. Refrain from folding your arms across your chest. This can look uncaring and excessively defensive – with even a menacing hint of aggression. As with other aspects of body language interpretation, there can be incorrect readings of this. It could be that an answerer with arms folded just happens to feel more comfortable that way – or that they’re cold. But if you reply with folded arms, you don’t normally appear enthusiastic about what you’re saying.
5. Finally, keep your hands out of your pockets while answering. Quite simply, without your hands on display you don’t look fully involved. Be aware, if you’re male, that women overwhelmingly don’t like to see you with your hands in your pockets – especially if it involves rattling loose change!
Michael Dodd is an international speaker who empowers audiences to become inspirational communicators. This is an edited extract from Great Answers to Tough Questions at Work by Michael Dodd (published by Capstone, 2016).