Your participant’s body language never lies and can tell you a lot if you know what to look for. Of course, as facilitators, we know better than to assume anything. So as you become adept at reading body language, be careful not to use this information to fuel your assumptions.
Consequently, our first tip is to always test your observations of body language to increase awareness. If participants appear bored, angry, or frustrated, then they probably are! But always check this out with them first just to be sure. For example, you might say, “I’m noticing that many of you are slouching and fidgeting in your chairs, will someone please share with me what you’re experiencing right now?” If you sense that a body is telling you something, check in with the person to find out what it is.
This leads to examining the congruence between body language and verbal language. For example, laughing while describing a very painful experience is incongruent behavior and should be checked out with participants. This incongruence indicates that something is amiss.
The “movement” aspects of Body Language can provide clues about how one conducts other aspects of their lives, i.e. patterns of behavior that they might not be consciously aware of.
It’s also important to be attuned to cultural differences in body language that could be present among your participants. So as always, when in doubt, check out your perceptions with your participants.
Finally, it pays for you to be conscious of the power of your own body language to engage the audience. For instance, use open posture; stand where you can be seen by all; when you move, move deliberately and for a purpose; use gestures to strengthen or enhance your communication; don’t use podiums or other objects to hide behind; make regular eye contact with everyone; and be expressive, amplifying what you are feeling and saying with your facial expressions and your body gestures.
We’ve included a link to a simple activity we’ve found extremely valuable in the past called the A to B Exercise. It’s a great deal of fun and can be conducted with one participant at a time, or the entire group to catch group patterns. Using only the language of physical movement, it provides great clues as to how we run our lives. Both effective and ineffective patterns may become evident through this exercise.
We’ve also included some body language tips, both positive and negative, courtesy of the Third Age Website, that you can use as facilitators. Look for these cues and check them out in your groups, or use them yourself to improve your presentations. Note that while these typical interpretations may hold in the “Western” world, they may be quite different in other cultures.
Positive Body Language
Negative Body Language
Direct eye contact
Warm, open smile
Open, inclusive gestures
Fully facing others
Upright but relaxed posture
Double hand clasp handshake
Feet firmly planted
Eyebrow flash upon greeting
Eye contact not met
Tight or no smile
Down and away or dropped glances
Not fully facing, at an angle
Chin into chest
Arms crossed or Legs crossed
Legs outstretched while seated
Your assignment this week is to practice observing body language–that of others and your own. We’re interested in hearing what you discover. Please tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.