Do You Leak When You Speak?

You’re more transparent than you think.

There’s that jaw tightening or the ‘look’ in the eye, the stroking of the index finger: anything that gives away an underlying meaning, another nuance to what you’re saying.

Body language is a form of communication that can convey underlying feelings and intentions, often unintentionally.  Without knowing it or being able to control it, our posture, eye movement or facial expressions can communicate our true feelings, expressing what we’re trying to hide.

An important part of communications coaching is understanding what unintentional signals we may be conveying when we speak.

A 2016 study by Kang and Tversky, concluded that gestures enhance meaning as well as understanding of complex systems, which is why body language is so key to communications training for technical specialists.  However, another study at Colgate University found that when speakers gesture in a way that contradicts their intention, it makes less sense of the speaker’s utterances, considerably reducing the effect of what’s been said.

Hence leaking is undermines the speaker’s intention.

How body language can give the wrong message

Imagine this scenario in your workplace:

You walk into your manager’s office for your appraisal and the manager remarks, “Firstly, you’re doing exceptionally well with (new client that’s worth tons of business).”  They look you in the eye, smile, and use a small gesture that underlines the word ‘exceptionally’.  All good.  Until you notice them fidget with the ring on their finger as if they’re trying to detach the digit from their hand.

Your eye will hone into the fidgeting fingers.  They seem nervous and you start to wonder if their previous words were genuine. The confidence with which you were infused just a minute before, is dissipated.

Such gestures are not part of the conscious intention of the speaker.  However, as they are unconscious, they carry more weight with the person on the receiving end, reflecting an unspoken but very genuine feeling of discomfort.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the manager in the above example was lying; it could be a natural personality issue and a manifestation of general discomfort at giving a compliment.  Alternatively, this could be due to anxiety about an event which is about to happen and may have no connection with that specific interaction. These unintentional gestures are ‘leaking gestures’. They will detract from your intention.

Common examples of leaking body language

  • biting or pursing the lips after you’ve spoken – this could be because you are trying to keep some words back. However, your listener may think you’re lying or holding something back.
  • smiling as you speak – this could be because you are embarrassed at what you’ve just said or trying to soften the blow. The person with whom you’re speaking may wonder what might be so amusing.
  • tapping the foot – could this be due to impatience? Perhaps, you’re keen for the person to give you a particular answer. Yet your listener is thinking, “Are you trying to get me out of here?”
  • rolling the feet in – I see this so much during communication coaching, whether the speaker is sitting or standing. It expresses a discomfort during conversation, giving the impression of a lack of confidence to the listener.

How to avoid leaking body language

Leaking body language is often something we portray when we’re inexperienced at something.

Show courage in what you are doing. If you project confidence, others will pick up on that and, as a result, you’ll be in a positive feedback loop.

You’re in your role because you deserve to be, so you can project this confidence by sustaining eye contact and keeping your body language controlled.

As messages you relay are not always your own, it would be natural to feel uncomfortable, but if you project clarity that’s exactly what the person on the other end will receive.

Your Action:

  1. Here’s a two minute trick to increase your self-confidence:
  2. If you’re uncomfortable when giving a message ensure you do the following:
    a) use a gesture to underline the main words or phrases;
    b) avoid leaking such actions as holding eye contact and resting the hands and feet. For example, you can bring your hands together, resting them on the table instead of fiddling with a ring. That’ll make you look more self-assured.

Learning about leaking body language and how to overcome it forms part of my communications skills training course and presentation skills training.

You can contact me for a free Discovery Call to see if I can help you or your people learn with communication skills training.

This article was originally published in September 2010 and was updated in August 2023.

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