You are careful with your email etiquette — always signing off kindly and professionally and never shooting off a passive-aggressive response after a cocktail—but what about the messages you’re sending silently? While many professionals have mastered the fine art of exuding confidence during meetings and networking events, when you’re faced with a stressful situation in the office, your body language might get the best of you.
Career expert and founder of Comepelle! Communications Nellie O’Brien says these subconscious reactions account for 93% of the judgments people make about you—so if you’re not paying attention, you should be. “It’s important to understand how suggestible your audience can be and how easily we are influenced by what we perceive visually,” she explains. “If you look credible, I believe what you are saying. If you appear passionate, I feel that passion. If you appear approachable, I like your message. If you look uncomfortable or doubtful, I am uncomfortable and doubtful about you and what you are saying.”
Here, body language pros analyze the signals you might not realize you’re sending:
Your manager just added another task to your overflowing responsibilities
Ugh. You already felt bombarded with deadlines and meetings, and now your manager is throwing yet another deliverable into your hat. When this happens, you will probably suddenly feel intensely overwhelmed, resulting in your head and shoulder dropping, as though the actual weight has been added to your back, O’Brien says. “You are now in a physically weak position which makes you appear and feel whiny and/or easily manipulated — neither of which is very pretty and both will hurt your case,” she shares.
You might also audibly sign to release the anxiety but O’Brien challenges professionals to do the opposite: Because you need to debate deadlines or your current capacity, you have to build yourself stronger, which reaps respect. “Inflate, gather and channel your energy to a strong position of strength and credibility. Bring your chest up and allow the air to fill you and raise you to the height you deserve so that you can make a reasonable case for how the situation might be resolved,” she says.
You’re missing an important social event to meet a deadline at work
The first date with someone promising — or an important date night you promised to your partner ages ago. Your daughter’s or niece’s playoff soccer game. A happy hour gathering with a long lost friend you backpacked through Europe with a decade ago. When you are looking forward to a special social event and then your boss asks you to stay late to finish an ‘ASAP project’, life coach Ellyn Schinke, MS, says you’re likely to pace, hunch, tap your foot, stare out the window, cross your arms and fake your smile. These are all examples of how your body is exuding what’s running through your head. “You’re experiencing anxiety, boredom and potentially even displeasure and frustration in this situation and are attempting to mask that displeasure through distraction,” she explains.
The task has to get done — and you want to at least make an appearance for your friends or families. Instead of accepting defeat, Schinke says to buckle down and prioritize work so you can zip through your deliverables instead of fidgeting. “Minimizing these repetitive and distracting movements will allow you to focus on the activity at hand at potentially make it to that social event sooner,” she adds.
Your coworker just dropped the ball
Sure, your reaction to an undependable colleague highly depends on the dynamic of your working relationship and your personality. No matter what though? You’re likely, well, pissed. After all, when someone promises to complete their end of the bargain and don’t, you’re left with more work on your plate or a disapproving boss that blames you for missing a deadline, too. When this happens, you can pretty much guarantee feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration, causing you to boil over, become passive-aggressive and putting you in danger of a major meltdown.
O’Brien says your mouth will turn down, your jaw will tense, you’ll close or put your hands in your pocket. You might even hold onto something tightly, pace or fidget. But when you feel your inner monster beginning to rear its head, don’t allow an outburst to diminish your power. If you freak out, O’Brien says your coworker will immediately be on the defensive, and now you are both in a closed position physically and mentally.”
Instead: do as your mom always instructed and count to ten. Breathe, straighten your spine, open your hands to signify honesty and reason. Then, O’Brien suggests relaxing your face and responding calmly so you can find a resolution and move forward.
You had a tense conversation with a client
Consider the last time you had a heated discussion with someone you love. Did you move around a lot? Sigh? Touch your face? Rub your hands? Maybe you even teared up. Though professional in nature, the matters of relationships remain the same with a client: Schinke says that when put on the spot to deliver bad news or negotiate a difficult agreement, you’ll turn to those same coping mechanisms. “You’re experiencing nervousness or stress in the situation and you’re attempting to soothe your nerves through the use of repetitive behaviors,” she explains.
Instead of allowing your discomfort to reign over your actions, Schinke says to remain still and continue to breathe. This focus will help you from appearing out of control or heavily impacted, giving you the platform to stand your case and make progress.