The art of using body language consciously - Veterinary Practice
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The art of using body language consciously

explains some aspects of non-verbal
communication and the need to
ignore facial expressions and
concentrate on the body…

THE language of the body is going on all the time. It happens in subtle, not so subtle and glaringly obvious ways, and when we register it, understand what it is saying and adapt our own to suit the message we want to get across, we have a powerful tool that can calm clients, get colleagues, employees and managers to listen to us and help us cut through deceit and lies. We are used to schooling our expressions, but very few people are conscious of what they are doing with their feet, legs and even torso. So for true readings – ignore the facial expressions and focus on the rest of the body. Using body language effectively hinges on three things:

  1. understanding the basics of body language;
  2. being able to register/observe consciously what the body is doing;
  3. being able to adapt your own body language where appropriate to influence the person across from you.

The basics of body posture

The unconscious mind and your physiology dictate a lot of what you do with your body. So it is logical that when we are in a situation where we are uncomfortable or where we disagree with what the other person is saying, we “distance” ourselves from the situation. Often people will do this by physically leaning their torso away from the other person with or without actually turning their body away from the person (see Figure 1). On the opposite side, when we like someone or agree with them, we tend to lean forward towards the person. This can be observed even when a person is sitting quite far away from the person who is speaking. Check this out at the next practice meeting: notice who will lean away from a speaker and think about what their attitude is, what their objections might be. Similarly, if you are the speaker, by observing who is leaning away from you, you can address them and find out that the resistance is, instead of having to deal with dragging feet and passive objections.

Pacifying gestures

Another give-away that people are uncomfortable or have just heard/observed something that is distressing them, is the use of a pacifying gesture. These gestures all have in common that we in some way touch ourselves or do something that involves a physical sensation. The most common pacifying gesture for women is touching the base of the neck where the collar bones meet (see Figure 2). This may take the form of playing with a necklace or toying with the hair, but all involve touching something in the neck region. For men, it is more common to adjust a sleeve or a tie and to drum their fingers on a surface.
All of these behaviours are typically exhibited when someone has
just heard something distressing or if they have encountered a problem that is going to be slightly tricky to solve. Keep an eye on the client when you perform an exam or a procedure – this
will give you a valuable clue that you might want to slow down and explain what you are doing or that the pet isn’t in any discomfort. On a more sophisticated level, it is also a give-away
that the instructions for care that you have just given might not be followed – because there is something in them that the client will find challenging to do, and so more help and guidance might be needed. If the client doesn’t have an auditory digital communication style, you can help settle them down by briefly and lightly touching them on the upper arm. This is a nonthreatening gesture that provides touch for a soothing effect without any suggestions of anything else.

Territorial displays

Sometimes you may come across people where you just feel uncomfortable or slightly threatened by them, but because nothing has been said, you are not able to justify the feeling to yourself. You may have registered a territorial display, something you often come across when dealing with naturally confident and assertive people. These displays are rarely meant as a threat, they are just an expression of who people are, but if the person isn’t higher up than you in the hierarchy of things, you may still react negatively to them. They range from papers spread over a large surface of a table during a meeting, elbows spread wide on a table to hands or feet spread quite wide. They can also position their arms in such a way that they are invading your personal space (see Figure 3). The key skill here is to recognise
the intent behind the gesture. Is this a real threat or just an unconscious display of confidence? With a real threat you may also notice a leaning forward of the body and an escalation of the display. Legs spreading wider and wider, chest puffing out and the stance of the arms widening continuously are all gestures to be wary of. Toning down your own body language can help in these situations. Whatever you do, don’t reciprocate – that is the way to getting into a real fight!

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