Let your body do the talking

18th January 2008 at 00:00
The perfect way to improve your effectiveness in the classroom - without saying a word. Richard Churches and Roger Terry explain. Photos by Neil Turner.

Have you ever observed another teacher and noticed that, although what they said seemed to make sense, the whole thing just didn't gel together? Or that although they said the right things, the children just weren't responding?

Our internal state, external behaviour and internal processing are interrelated - change one and you change the other. Some postures affect all of these areas, not only for the giver but also the receiver of the communication.

This week, in the third in our series of articles about neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) - a form of self-development that teaches you how to improve your communication skills - we are looking at body language and how you can use it to improve your effectiveness in the class.

Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founders of NLP, studied Virginia Satir, one of the world's leading family therapists. She observed five basic language attitudes and identified body positions that usually accompany these: blaming, placating, computing, distracting and levelling. People will use a mixture of these in communication, although we all have a preference for one or more.

Knowing the effect on others of these positions, and the language that goes with them, is a powerful way to have a positive effect and ensure impact and influence. Adopting appropriate categories in front of an audience, a group or a class not only affects your internal state but also that of your audience.

Janet Howell, headteacher at Malden Oak Pupil Referral Unit in Surrey, says: "I teach positive body language and Satir categories to new teaching staff so that they recognise these fundamental archetypes within themselves and their pupils. In addition, I encourage staff to look for the positions when observing colleagues. This enables them to deliver powerful lessons and influence classroom behaviours in subtle ways."

Let's start with blaming. The blaming person wants to shift responsibility. They will often point their finger and use stiff gestures. Communication in this position tends towards disagreement. The impact of this sort of body posture is to imply fault in the receiver. Irrespective of the words used, the impact will often be to create feelings of defensiveness and the need to respond accordingly. The gesture is aggressive rather than assertive. Ask someone to point at you and say something positive about you and notice how you actually feel inside.

The placating person is the blamer's counterpart. They seek sympathy and they may even accept the blame for just about everything. Their body language is not forceful and will often include the palms up "placater" position. This posture implies agreement and pleasing others. If you have a difficult message to communicate or wish to complain, adopt a placating body position while you speak. Because the message is now ambiguous, the dominant communication element - body language - will carry the meaning. This will affect the recipient by literally making them feel they are receiving a gift. In the classroom, placating should be used with caution, especially with tough classes, because it can communicate weakness.

The computing person uses language and a body posture that involves folding one arm across the body and resting the other hand on the chin. They are dissociated from the situation and can appear cold or unfeeling. This body posture comes over as ultra-reasonable, removed from the situation and dissociated. It communicates being collected and thinking things through logically.

Computing is a powerful posture to adopt when you want others to think things through. This posture is particularly effective in the classroom when you want children to respond to a question you have asked or to consider an issue. Just adopting the posture prompts thought in others.

The distracter will switch quickly between positions. They may be seeking to cause confusion to distract attention from themselves or they could be internally confused. This will generally make you come across as someone who is making no sense, or as irrelevant. Because of this it is probably one to avoid. However, it can be effective if used for humour as part of a presentation.

The leveller will use grounded positions that allow them to come across as "on the level", centred and factual. Their body posture communicates the idea that they are being true to what they think (palms pressing down at mid-body height). This posture has a calming effect on the physiology of not only the leveller, but also those who see it.

Even one-handed, this position holds people's attention. There are few negative things to say about it, however people who do not want to hear the truth may challenge it. Over-used, it can lead to disinterest and boredom. Gently assertive and influential, this posture communicates honesty, accuracy and factualness. This is a good posture to adopt when stating facts that you want to be accepted or for reinforcing your position in a calm and positive way.

Children, parents and teachers will usually use a mixture of these postures in communication. However, we all have preferences for one or more of the communication styles and may rarely or never use others. If you spend some time working with someone, you will begin to get a sense of what their preferred category is. Awareness of these different styles and their effect on other people gives us flexibility to communicate in different ways and be more effective in one-to-one interactions, groups, meetings, classroom situations or presentation and training environments.

In conflict situations or when you are uncertain, begin with computing, a safe and neutral place to be. For a powerful end to any sequence of categories, use the leveller. This will tend to make your words more acceptable and believable. For example: when telling off a child, adopt a placating posture when you tell them what they did wrong so that it comes over as a gift and end by telling them how you want them to behave next time using a levelling posture for impact.

Mirroring body language builds rapport. But when talking to a person adopting a blaming posture, avoid mirroring as you will tend to get into an argument, and if you match the body language of a placating person, you may end up in a whingeing contest.

Richard Churches is principal consultant for national programmes at CfBT Education Trust and a former Advanced Skills Teacher. Roger Terry is an international NLP trainer, presenter and public speaker and runs Evolution Training with Emily, his wife. NLP for Teachers: How to be a highly effective teacher is on sale now.


Blaming: Pointing suggests you're trying to shift the blame.

Placating: A palms-up posture that implies agreement and pleasing others.

Computing: The computing person hides their emotions and seems ultra-logical.

Distracting: Switching quickly between postures can make you seem confused or irrelevant.

Levelling: With your palms to the ground, you seem honest and authoritative.


Sue Gwinnell-Smith, assistant headteacher at Littlehampton Community School in West Sussex, says: "When walking into a classroom, I make sure I adopt a levelling stance, pulled up to all of my 5ft 2in, palms facing down and an assertive but reassuring tone. It says that I'm in the driving seat and everything is all right.

"It is amazing the number of people I see who are new to the profession who have a body posture that says, 'dump on me' and a pleading tone. Working on this alone can have such a big impact."

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