Drop These 5 Nonverbal Habits
What are your nonverbal habits? Do you know?
Often with habits, you don’t even realize you’re doing them. They’re automatic and almost involuntary. You do them unconsciously because they make you feel better. Sometimes that’s good, like brushing your teeth to make your mouth feel clean. But sometimes the things you do to “feel better” aren’t actually good for you: picking your nails, lighting another cigarette, mindlessly scrolling social media. They satisfy a need but detract from your overall physical or mental health.
The same is true for communication habits. We all have them. Are you aware of yours? Perhaps you say “um” or “you know” or “like” too much. Maybe you look at your phone when others are talking to you. Or you might complete other people’s sentences for them (guilty!).
Whether it’s stress, boredom, nervousness, frustration, or anything else that creates tension, you develop little communication habits to relieve that tension in social interactions. Ellen Hendriksen, in her book on social anxiety, refers to them as “safety behaviors.” But while you do them to make yourself feel better, they actually make you look worse—unsure of yourself, nervous, or aloof.
I’m guessing that’s not how you want to come across! If you want to look confident, capable, and open, here are five nonverbal habits to drop.
1. Pulling in.
For many, hunching over is simply a posture habit and has nothing to do with confidence or mood. But when you compress your body, you look like you’re trying to hide. At best, you come across as uninterested. If you’re really huddled up, you may look defeated or scared.
It takes energy to sit or stand up tall and claim space. And seriously, you don’t have to do it all day long. Take breaks! But when you want to communicate credibility and confidence, be sure you take up all the space you need. Sit or stand to your full height and allow your chest and shoulders to open up.
2. Avoiding eye contact.
Breaking eye contact during a conversation is completely natural and normal, yet if you never look the person you’re speaking with in the eye, it sends one of two messages: a) I don’t think enough of myself to meet your gaze or b) I don’t think enough of you to give you my attention. Both make a terrible impression.
A good rule of thumb is to look people in the eye about half the time during positive interactions. Consider it a gift. Let the other person know that you see them. By seeing them literally, you demonstrate that you see them figuratively—who they are—too.
Most people I’ve met are pretty good at making eye contact in face-to-face interactions, but this skill can go by the wayside in video meetings. It’s fine to look at the person on your screen from time to time, but make sure you also look directly into the camera.
3. Speaking too quickly or quietly.
If you speak so fast or so quietly that no one can understand you, you’re kinda missing the point of speaking at all. For communication to take place, you have to speak in a way that others can understand, and that includes the physical mechanics of speech.
To overcome these extremes, first remember to breathe. This will naturally slow your pace and increase your resonance. Secondly, listen and learn. The person you’re speaking with will give you clues as to what they need from you. Are they straining to hear or asking you to repeat yourself? Slow down and speak up!
Speaking quickly isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes you need to be quick, or perhaps you want to add urgency, energy, or excitement to your message. If you add pauses, your audience can absorb what you’ve said.
4. Hand positions.
You probably have a comfortable way of holding your hands that you habitually fall into during conversations. I often have my hands in my sweater pockets or crossed over my chest. It’s just more comfortable. But how you hold your hands can send a negative message (and I’m not talking about flipping people off!). When you need to communicate openness, friendliness, competence, or trustworthiness, avoid these hand positions:
- Crossed arms. This creates a barrier so that you look opposed to the other person.
- Hands on hips. This conveys, “I will get my way,” and comes across as domineering.
- Hands in pockets. This looks reserved. Your hands represent your work. Hiding them makes it seem like YOU have something hide.
- Fig leaf (hands clasped down in front). This sends the message, “Please don’t hurt me,” as you are literally protecting your vulnerable parts.
Instead, hold your hands lightly in front of you so that your arms are perpendicular to the ground. Or, you can let them hang by your sides. These are open, neutral positions for your hands.
Tapping your pen or your foot. Bouncing your knee. Rubbing your hands together. Fiddling with hair or clothing. Pacing. These are all self-pacifying gestures people tend to do when nervous. Most of the time, they signal fight-or-flight: fight, when the energy is in the arms; flight, when the energy is in the legs. It could just be a habit… or it could mean you’re nervous or anxious. Regardless, it looks like you’re in fight-or-flight.
To convey confidence and presence, calm your body. Be still. Breathe, feel your feet, and stay grounded.
Changing habits takes practice: time, intention, and repetition. First, you have to notice what you’re doing—that can be a challenge on its own! Then, instead of trying to stop doing the behavior, replace it with what you want to do instead. When you find yourself hunching over, open up your shoulders. When you realize you’re looking at your phone, look back at the person. When you discover you’ve crossed your arms, discreetly unfold them.
Keep in mind that new behaviors feel awkward at first. Do them anyway! You’ll get used to it. Then your outward behavior will match your intentions. Your bad habits will feel better—they’re familiar AND you’ve developed them specifically to feel better! But feelings are transitory. The benefits of communicating with confidence and poise will last a lifetime.