Body language exists on the border between our internal and external worlds, but things don’t always translate clearly across the borders

Are you someone who has the habit of crossing your arms? Do you furrow your brow so you have RBF? Have others told you you need to work on your attitude?

Does this describe something you see in your colleagues? When someone else crosses their arms or furrows their brow does it make you feel uncomfortable?

If either of these describes you, congratulations! You are totally normal!

Body language exists on the border between our internal and external worlds, but things don’t always translate clearly across that border.

We are influenced by all sorts of subtleties in the body language of the people around us. The dilemma, though, is that body language doesn’t always accurately convey people’s feelings and intentions, especially across cultural lines. We aren’t always aware of what signals we’re sending others, and we don’t always correctly interpret the signals we are receiving.

Confusion is compounded by our tendency to immediately create a story (often a misattribution) to explain these signals based on what seems most salient.

There is a lot going on in our internal worlds (mind, emotions, nervous system, chemicals, etc.) and this is what informs our body language. Some of it is relevant to the current situation and some is not, so it is not by any means easy to guess what someone else’s body language means in relation to “me.”

At the same time, we are highly attuned to each other’s body language; we are constantly subconsciously and consciously guessing how the people around us feel because this helps us figure out what to think about ourselves and the situation.

To put this in a specific context, we might consider what things from the perspective of a coach.

Let’s say you have a talented player, but that player seems to be giving off physical signals that don’t bring out the best in their teammates. What should you do about it? When the pressure is on, should you take that player out of the game?

It depends on what kind of personal experiences, team culture and results are you trying to create?

Paying attention to “bad body language” might indeed lead you to take someone out of a game because it could be a signal they are not in the right mental and physical state to perform. Taking them out could give them a chance to reset while the team continues to work toward victory.

Ideally, as a competitive athlete (or in some analogous position), you don’t want to be taken out, but it can also be a huge learning opportunity. It may all come down to how the coach frames things. Is the coach taking the player out of the game only as punishment or to use players like chess pieces to win today’s battle? Alternatively, is the coach framing this as the best way for the individual to learn from the experience WHILE also allowing the team to maintain positive momentum in the moment?

If the coach follows up with the player to reflect on the decision, it could be a great learning opportunity for the player.

Let’s now look at this situation from the perspective of the player.

Along with development of technique and tactics, to become a consistent high performer you have to learn how to monitor and regulate your internal states (emotions, frame of reference, chemistry, etc.).

For some people this is relatively easy while for others it is the biggest barrier in their path to becoming a person capable of bringing out their best when it is needed most. A coach or colleague who pays attention to these sorts of details can help us all learn how best to regulate our inner states so that they support the results we are trying to achieve in the external world.

If body language is important, but also subtle and complex, how do we make use of it without misusing it?

Novak Djokovic talks about how much work he has done to deal with his own internal negativity under pressure so he can recover quickly and focus on doing what he needs to do to win. This is probably even more important in team contexts where we are constantly affecting each other in subtle ways through our interactions, facial expressions and physical presence.

Perhaps what we really need to do – especially when the pressure is on – is remember to be curious about the meaning of the signals we are picking up from others, so we can use that information to support each other’s search for what brings out the best in each of us and our teams.

This is also true in the workplace, especially one that emphasizes competition and performance!

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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