Kelly Durbin, Austin,Texas, USA
There is usually plenty of discussion at a La Leche League meeting. As Leaders we often gain valuable insight into the kind of information or support parents need by asking questions and discussing breastfeeding topics. But nonverbal communication is equally important, and it can often expose hidden messages or intentions. Learning to read body language can help Leaders interpret some of the non-verbal cues that parents reveal, especially if they are not quite familiar with the routines of LLL meetings or sharing details in Group conversation.
Begin reading the signals of the body with the face. Most often we greet others with a smile. Smiles can tell others whether the person feels comfortable in a situation or not. The trick is to determine if the person is giving you an authentic smile or one that is forced. An authentic smile engages the mouth, with corners turning upward. In addition, real smiles also involve movements of the eyebrows and even eyelids and the forehead. In a real smile, the whole face appears to be in motion and show someone’s genuine level of happiness or comfort. Watch for people who display vague smiles that lack feeling because they may be struggling but don’t feel comfortable talking about it.
Eye contact is also an important aspect of body language. Those who are engaged and interested will make eye contact with the speaker and maintain eye contact longer. Those who avoid eye contact or have a tendency to look away could be feeling very awkward, vulnerable or uncomfortable.
Arms and the upper body
Arms and the upper body are also central components for reading nonverbal communication. Generally, people who feel comfortable and happy will use their arms in open, upward gestures. When people feel uncomfortable, down, or are lacking confidence, the arms tend to be held closer to the body. If a mother is holding her baby throughout the meeting, her arms may not reveal much but the upper body posture might.
The upper body, or torso, is quite vulnerable. Unlike the brain, which has lots of protection, the torso does not and our bodies are wired to protect it all the time –– which is why torso postures and body language can accurately reveal feelings of like and dislike, approval and disapproval, feelings of safety and feelings of danger. Usually, when a person feels comfortable, she will position her torso towards others, especially the speaker in a group setting. If a person is feeling uncomfortable, she will turn her upper body away from the source of discomfort. During your next meeting, take note of the torso positions of the Group members. Are people facing in towards the Group? Do they turn, even slightly, to members of the Group as different people speak? Or do you notice someone who shifts her body to face slightly away from the speaker? This shifting away may reveal subtle clues that the person is not at ease with the conversation.
The torso position can also be read as open or closed. In an open posture, the person sits or stands upright with shoulders back, which signals a feeling of safety. In the closed posture, the torso is protected –– shoulders turn inward, arms covering the front of the body. You can imagine that at an LLL meeting a new mother lacking confidence might display the closed posture if she is uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of others or if she feels very vulnerable.
Legs and feet
The legs and feet also tell a story through nonverbal cues. Our legs and feet are usually positioned toward our interest and show intention. If two people are engaged in conversation and both are genuinely interested, their feet will be facing toward each other. If one person has her feet turned away or even turned in the direction of the exit, her intention may be to leave the conversation or the room. Our legs can also show our intent with various positions. Crossed legs signal comfort and ease. The person sitting crossed-legged is not showing signs or readiness to walk out. On the other hand, someone with uncrossed legs and feet turned toward the exit is showing signs that she may want to move along.
Body language certainly displays important information but keep in mind that one of these clues does not tell the whole story. Taken as a whole, from head to toe, the communication of body language speaks about our intentions and our interest in the situations of everyday life. Read the whole body, not just one part.
Your own body language
In addition to reading others, analyze your own body language. What are you telling people with your smile, your arms, torso, and shoulder posture? As Leaders, we are giving subtle clues into our own states of mind with body language. We also reveal our confidence level, interest in the conversation and feelings of safety. Many times, people in a group setting who feel welcomed and at ease will mimic the body postures of the speaker or leader. What postures can you use to show interest in Group members? What postures can you use to communicate that the meeting is a safe space for others?
Customs and culture
As one might expect, body language is very culturally specific. Just as a certain hand signal may be a peaceful gesture in one part of the world and obscene in another, body language is very dependent on the cultural context. In some places, making eye contact can be seen as aggressive or disrespectful. Even smiling to show happiness or warmth is not universal. Some cultures prefer to avoid the overt display of emotion; consequently, smiling is not common in some cultural contexts. Be cognizant of the cultural relevance of the body language and customs in your area.
If you notice the subtle cues that someone in the Group might be struggling, or perhaps is feeling very vulnerable, there are several things we as Leaders can do to put others at ease. First, be sure to welcome everyone and call each person by name. Engage Group members, ask questions and use empathy in your responses. Display open body postures and warm smiles. Above all, use active listening skills and repeat back what you hear. Tailor your messages and comments to each person and encourage the Group to share information and support each other. Be cognizant of your own body postures as you speak and as you listen.
It takes practice to become aware of our body language and that of others. Becoming conscious of your nonverbal communication and that of others can complete the picture of what people tell us in the Group meeting. Give it a try at your next meeting. You may discover something new about nonverbal communication.
Kelly Durbin has been a Leader in Austin, Texas in the United States for about ten years. She has experience leading meetings in five different states across the country.