The young woman across the table took a breath and tried to settle herself. She had come for coaching to communicate more confidently in the workplace; but, as sometimes happens, the conversation had turned from career to personal relationships. “I’ve joined Match.com and have gone out on a few dates, but they never seem to go anywhere,” she told me. “I don’t think I make a very good first impression. Can you help with that?”
We pretended we were on a first date. After a few minutes, I suggested, “Let’s trade roles. You be the guy. I’ll be you.” I mimicked her body language, making myself as small as possible, turning my shoulders in, burying my hands between my knees, looking downward. Immediately, she exclaimed, “Wait—what!? Is that what I look like!?”
It was a good reminder for me that people have no idea what they are doing with their bodies. And it was a huge lesson for her on how her negative beliefs about herself and her fears regarding how the interaction would go were being broadcast for all to see.
She told me how vulnerable and jaded she felt heading into a date. “You never know if the guy you’re meeting is going to actually be the same as what you see on the site,” she said. “And it’s SO HARD, it just… ugh, hurts, when you do kinda like the guy but he’s obviously not interested in you.”
It’s easy to take things personally when interactions—dates, one-on-one meetings, negotiations, etc.—don’t go well. We so often base our sense of self-worth on the reactions of others. That means there’s a LOT more on the line than how that date or meeting turns out.
The problem is, when we have negative stories about ourselves or others, we start a downward communication spiral. We convey those messages in our body language, the other person responds accordingly, we get defensive or aggressive, and the whole thing goes downhill from there.
I can fix your body language and turn down the nonverbal static, but it’s not going to help much if you don’t change the way you THINK.
One of the most common negative assumptions I come across in coaching is, “That person will hurt me.” It could be a business partner, a client, a juror, an employee, a boss, a friend… The fact is, we all have the power to hurt. “That person” could hurt your feelings, hurt your reputation, hurt your case, hurt your career… And when stakes are high, that power to hurt increases.
NO ONE likes to be hurt. (Except masochists, I guess?) But what happens when you come into a conversation with an assumption that the other person is out to get you?
When we expect others to hurt us, we put up a nonverbal shield. The shield could be a fake smile, overly impersonal language, an edgy tone of voice, crossed arms, jargon, nervous laughter, or any number of nonverbal behaviors we use to create barriers and hide behind. What is your nonverbal shield?
Whatever it is, every time you use it you say, “I am bracing for impact because you will hurt me.” And you know what happens? At best, you lose out on real connection. At worst, the other person obliges you and meets your expectations. OUCH.
What would happen if, instead of expecting pain and bracing for impact, you entered every conversation without expectations? What if you just showed up without your stories and preconceived notions and then acted and reacted based on the reality that presented itself? What if, instead of fear, anger, and cynicism, you just brought your whole, real, wonderful self to the situation?
Here’s what will happen: More often than not, the people you meet with will get the signal before you open your mouth that you’re not looking for a fight, that you’re looking for connection and solutions, and you’re in this together… and they’ll respond accordingly. Sometimes you’ll meet with people who are so fearful, angry, and distrustful themselves that they respond according to their OWN made-up stories about you, instead of responding to the real you. So then… you deal with that reality and don’t take it personally because that’s clearly their issue.
What a difference I saw in my coaching client when she let go of her fears! She looked like a pleasant, engaging human being with personality instead of a fragile, fearful wisp of a person. And perhaps the greatest change was that she no longer feared meeting new people. They had lost most of their power to hurt.
I’m not asking you to pretend everything is hunky-dory in life and in the world. I’m asking you to wait and see. Wait and see how your next interaction goes instead of passing judgment before you even get there. You are not a mind reader. You don’t know what people think. Stop pretending you do, because it shows up in your body language.
Drop your stories and meet people where they actually are. You’ll feel better, you’ll look better, and your interactions will go better.
Be bold. Be real. Be a communication rock star.
I’m Rachel Beohm, coach and trainer here at FORTE. Through nonverbal communication, I empower clients to show up as their biggest, boldest selves. Next week, Sirpa Kuns and I will be delving more into how your stories show up nonverbally in our webinar It’s Not You, It’s Me: How to Own Your Crap to Increase Productivity. Register TODAY!