Quietly speaking volumes

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Your body language can have as much impact as your words. Janet Murray looks at how to use gestures to your advantage

As a teacher, you may regard yourself as a skilled communicator. Every day you connect with adults and children from many backgrounds. You choose your words carefully, adapting your delivery to suit your audience. But what is the message behind those words? A glance, a blush or a gesture can reveal far more about you than you might imagine.

"Human beings use many channels of communication," says Susan Quilliam, a relationship psychologist and author of Body Language Secrets. "Yet, until recently, we've tended to regard only verbal channels as important; that is, what we say and what we write. Now we've realised that non-verbal communication is just as important as words because it gives us as much, if not more, information about what people are thinking and feeling."

Some estimates reckon that up to 93 per cent of the information we receive about any situation comes non-verbally rather than verbally.

Mention "body language" and there is a tendency to assume it is about reading what others do, but the information you transmit about yourself through your own body language is equally important. Being aware of your own non-verbal signals can have a significant impact on your success at work. So when you are chatting to a colleague, asking your headteacher for a promotion or explaining something to a pupil, what you do may be far packed with more information than what you say.

Knowledge of body language is an advantage if you wish to be regarded as a competent professional. It is especially important for existing and aspiring school leaders, and can be invaluable if you are looking to change jobs.

"One of the most important things is to come across as friendly and easy to work with," says Ms Quilliam. "You can do that by smiling, keeping eye contact and being a good listener.

"When chatting to colleagues, nod to show understanding or approval and to reflect their emotions. If they laugh, try to at least raise a smile. If they express sadness, let your expression become serious.

"Light contact, such as a touch on the arm, can also show understanding and interest, but obviously you'd need to exercise caution with students."

Body mirroring is another way to form positive relationships at work. "In any two-way conversation, body mirroring, or subtly mirroring the body position and mannerisms of the other party, can help put people at ease and foster a relaxed atmosphere," says psychologist Honey Langcaster-James. "If you understand this subtle technique, you can use it to help others feel comfortable and you'll come across as approachable and pleasant. But be careful not to go over the top as this could be intimidating and make your colleague feel as if you're having a joke at their expense."

Appearing confident is crucial for professional success, says James Williams, PGCE convenor at the University of Sussex. His advice can be applied in the classroom, but can work equally well in other situations, such as giving presentations, leading meetings or dealing with parents - all vital aspects of the teacher's professional profile.

"When you enter a room, enter with purpose, not sheepishly. When you're standing, give out a balanced body language by standing straight, feet slightly apart with your weight balanced evenly. Pull the shoulders back and try not to fold your arms, as this is quite a defensive posture.

"Gestures can be used to make points, but avoid big, wide, gestures, as these can make you seem out of control. Eye contact should be clear, with the head held facing forward, possibly tilted back slightly, but not too much, as this could suggest arrogance."

When sitting down, Mr Williams advises, don't hunch up or hug your legs, as this can appear defensive. Men should avoid sitting with their legs apart, as this could be interpreted as rude.

The ability to adopt a neutral body language can be helpful in more formal situations, such as meetings with other education professionals, addressing disciplinary matters or dealing with difficult parents.

"In these kinds of situations, you would apply the principles of appearing confident plus a sense of creating some distance between yourself and those you're addressing," says Ms Quilliam. "This might mean a more fixed gaze or expression, almost looking down at them. After someone has spoken, take a bit of time to respond, as if you're really thinking about what they've said. And try not to to mirror their actions, as this will help maintain some distance."

What you wear at work speaks volumes about you but, if you are a well-established member of staff, your reputation may go before the creased shirts or bobbly cardigans. However, at a job interview you need to get it right, particularly if you are aiming for a senior post. So, ditch that ageing polyester suit.

At an interview you can employ many of the techniques you would use within the school context. Ms Quilliam advises interviewees to sit straight and avoid crossing legs as this can give the impression of awkward posture.

Fidgeting is a standard sign of nervousness and can be avoided by keeping the hands together in your lap.

That is not to say you can't use your hands to make gestures, as you become more relaxed - and you don't want to appear characterless - but be aware that this can slow down your fluency rate and verbal clarity.

Expressing approval by nodding and keeping friendly eye contact are also associated with interview success, as this can help create a rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee.

However, Ms Quilliam is keen to point out that there are no hard and fast rules about body language. While these are useful guidelines, you need to be flexible.

"As a former teacher, I know this only too well," she says. "I can remember a nightmare class which didn't respond to my formal style. I looked around at the teachers this class worked well for and I saw them sitting on the front of their desks in quite an informal manner. So I adopted a more informal style, which they seemed to prefer."

Ms Quilliam's experience underlines the value in observing colleagues' body language. Look at the teachers you admire in your staffroom and learn from them. How do they use non-verbal communication to command respect and trust from their colleagues?

"If you can understand how these messages are being communicated," say Ms Langcaster-James, "you can ensure you are sending out the right messages and learn how to develop more accurate perceptions of others at work."

Body Language, Susan Quilliam (Carlton Books Ltd, pound;12.99)

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