Body language is an incredible tool that we can leverage to communicate more clearly and authentically with the people in our lives.
"Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body." –Irene Claremont de Castillejo
Communicating clearly with others can be a challenge.
There are a lot of reasons for this. It isn't always easy for most of us to find the right words to express what's in our heads and hearts in a way that the other person understands. And, often, we unknowingly bring things like our moods, emotions, past traumas, and motives into our conversations. Luckily, we have another communication tool at our disposal: our bodies.
Our bodies actually already do a lot of the talking for us. It might come as a surprise, but only 7% of our communication comes from speaking words. The rest we communicate using our tone of voice and body language.
Non-verbal communication is an incredible tool that we can leverage to communicate more clearly and authentically with the people in our lives. But first, we need to build awareness into how our bodies express and interpret non-verbal language without our knowledge.
A note on interpreting body language
Before we dive into how our bodies communicate with each other, you should know this: there is no dictionary when it comes to non-verbal communication. Our brains and the cultures we live in influence how we express ourselves using "body language."
If you've ever traveled to another country, you may have noticed this already. Different gestures or glances can have a completely different meaning in another place. For example, in some Western cultures, maintaining eye contact during a conversation shows that you're interested and listening to the speaker. However, in some Eastern cultures, this same gesture could be considered a sign of aggression or disrespect.
Further, the body language of neurodiverse individuals differs from neurotypical people. Depending on the neurodiversity you have, you may feel uncomfortable making eye contact or smiling as a social response. There's nothing wrong with this. Like citizens of other countries, neurodiverse individuals just express themselves in different ways.
What is body language?
Body language is a form of nonverbal communication conveyed through our facial expressions, hand gestures, eye movements, posture, etc. Unlike spoken communication, our body language doesn't tell lies, half-truths, or make plans it has no intention of keeping. If we are not consciously using it, it can reveal things about how we feel that we may not want to convey in the conversation.
As mentioned earlier, there's no dictionary or perfect universal interpretation of how our bodies communicate for us. A gesture here might mean something different somewhere else. That said, our brains have a built-in tool for intuitively translating non-verbal communication that we receive from other people. It's called mirror neurons.
Our mirror neurons are just what they sound like: neurons in our brains that mirror what they see. The best example of this is yawning. We've all been in a situation where a person near us yawns, and suddenly we have to yawn as well. These are our mirror neurons firing up and reflecting what they are seeing.
However, mirror neurons are more than just physical mirrors—they are also emotional ones. They help us decipher what other people are feeling by witnessing their body language and absorbing, interpreting, and mirroring it back. Have you ever felt like you have caught someone's mood before? Say, for example, someone walks into the room smiling, full of joy, and excited to see you. You probably felt the same emotions bubble up after being greeted like that. Mirror neurons can catch other people's feelings and exhibit them back.
How to communicate with mirror neurons
Mirror neurons are sometimes called "empathy neurons" because they provide us with an intuitive ability to ascribe meaning to visual information that others share non-verbally. This allows us to feel and express empathy for others.
In our continual attempts as humans to connect, we can use our mirror neurons to express and seek understanding with one another. We can intentionally leverage mirroring to successfully communicate regardless of where we are or who we're talking to.
- Expressing understanding. Consciously mirroring another person's body language is a great way to build rapport with that person because it signals that you understand their feelings. By intentionally mirroring and using other indicators like nodding your head and reflecting what you heard helps show that you understood what the other person was expressing.
- Seeking understanding. If you are seeking to be understood, look for mirroring in the other person. You can do this by consciously adjusting your body to see how they react. For example, try something like leaning back in your chair or placing your hands on the table. If you notice that the other person mirrors your movements, then it's a good indicator that they are tuned in and listening.
Mirror neurons on Zoom
Because our bodies play an essential role in how we communicate, the constant zoom meetings over the past year may have felt inauthentic to some of us. Not that all digital conversations are inauthentic, but we don't have full use of body language to help us interpret and express feelings.
That said, we can still make conscious use of mirror neurons. Before your meeting, think about what your goals are for it. What emotions do you want to express and have others pick up on? By simply bringing more awareness into our emotions and goals, we can use our body language to be successful online and off.