A lot has also been written about body language. Without saying a word, your stance alone can speak volumes. Often, it's likely that you are not thinking about or feeling what your body is saying that causes others to misread you.
In Shakespeare's Othello, Othello sensed an uneasiness in the demeanor of his wife Desdemona, which he interpreted as evidence that she had been unfaithful to him. In actuality, Desdemona had been faithful to Othello, and her uneasiness was due to fear that Othello wouldn't believe her. Othello's misinterpretation of Desdemona's nonverbal cues lead to his murdering her.
There is a lot of popular interest in interpretation of nonverbal communication. Television shows such as "Lie to Me" and "Psych" depict characters with acute awareness of nonverbal clues that most people overlook.
Dr. Maureen Sullivan from the University of San Francisco tested 13,000 individuals to assess their ability to detect deception by others. Of the 13,000 people, only 31 could consistently detect deception by others.
Although accurate reading of nonverbal clues is not something everyone can do, most people do tend to interpret nonverbal communication by others, whether it is an accurate interpretation or not. This leads to perceptions that could be wrong.
The focus of this section of the book is therefore not about how to interpret others' nonverbal cues. Rather, it is how to better manage your own body language to avoid misinterpretation by others. This is called body language self-awareness.
The definitive body language signal is folded arms (as shown in Figure 4.3). When talking to someone whose arms are folded, the popular interpretation is that the arm folder is rejecting or disagreeing with what is being said. In reality, the person could be cold. Perhaps the person is more comfortable with folded arms. It's not necessarily an indicator of rejection. Unfortunately, actual intent is irrelevant.
Figure 4.3 Body language self-awareness
When Fred is talking to Mary, and Mary's arms are folded, it's possible (and even highly probable) that Fred will interpret Mary's folded arms as rejection of his ideas. The typical observer will look at this situation from Fred's point of view: "What is Mary telling me?" Let's try looking at it from the other direction—Mary's point of view: "Fred is talking to me. I want to fold my arms, but if I do, Fred may think I'm disagreeing with him. It would really be so much more comfortable to fold my arms, but I'm just not going to."
Mary's self-awareness of her body language demonstrated empathy toward Fred. Whether or not Mary agreed with what Fred was saying, her conscientious decision to avoid telegraphing negativity offered Fred more freedom to express his thoughts.
The key message here is not that Mary has to agree with Fred. Rather, Mary is empathetic to Fred's desire to express his ideas freely. The empathetic Mary is more likeable than the (presumed) rejecting Mary, which offers an opportunity for Mary and Fred to have a richer, more engaging interaction on the subject they're discussing.
Your nonverbal cues may be unconsciously sending a message to others. The characters in Figure 4.4 show an exaggerated expression of nonverbal "shouting." Without uttering a word, these characters (from left to right) clearly depict arrogance, confidence, and disapproval. See Figure 4.5 for common interpretations of body language.
Figure 4.4 Nonverbal cues
Figure 4.5 Common interpretations of body language