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Why you shouldn't put your hands behind your back

Liz DeCarlo

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Body language demonstrates instantly who you are to clients and prospects.

We all know charismatic people when we meet them, but actually defining what makes a person charismatic is more of a challenge. That’s where Vanessa Van Edwards comes in. She has made a career out of understanding the hidden ingredients of charisma and how people can learn to be more charismatic.

“Charisma is a balance of warmth and competence,” said Van Edwards, a behavioral investigator and body-language expert. People make assumptions about you the moment they meet you, and highly charismatic people give trust indicators immediately.

“The first place we look is someone’s hands,” Van Edwards said. “Hands are our trust indicator. They show our intentions.” The people you meet need to see your hands; putting them behind your back makes others less trustful of you.

Hands are also a competence indicator. Charismatic people use their hands to outline their words. Van Edwards suggests practicing keeping hands visible, using explanatory gestures and keeping your hands out of your pockets when meeting new people.

When you shake hands, you should also be looking at the other person’s eyes. “Eye contact builds connections quicker, and can be used to decode how others feel about us,” she said.

Van Edwards defined three types of gazing:

  • Power: Keep contact high on the face. This shows competence.
  • Social: Eye contact between eyes and mouth. This type of gazing encodes friendship and trust.
  • Intimate: Eye-to-eye and toward the collar bone. When we’re trying to assess a potential mate, we lower our gaze.

Women tend to default to social gazing, while men default to power gazing, she said. But men and women alike should be purposeful with their gaze, using power gazing to show competence and social to convey warmth.

Our words also matter. Avoid starting a conversation with something negative, such as “There was terrible traffic,” or “I’m so stressed.” Look for the opportunity to prime — using words to shape thoughts, behavior and action. So start a conversation with, “It was an easy trip here” or “This is an end to a great day.”

“You’re searching for good and mentioning the good to someone else,” Van Edwards said. “Never waste an opportunity to prime for good. Every business introduction should be about priming, as should interactions with team members and spouses.”

Van Edwards recommends doing the same with emails. “Think first about how you want the person to feel. Make those opportunities purposeful,” she said. Change calendar invites from a basic meeting name to what you want the person to feel, for instance calling a meeting a Creative Work Session. Use warm words such as “together,” “collaborate” and “I’m open.” Use competent phrases such as “Let’s brainstorm.”

“When you do this, they’re primed before you’ve even met,” Van Edwards said. “It’s how we get people ready to be their best self before they even show up.”

Voice your thoughts the right way

Your voice is another opportunity to learn to be more charismatic, Van Edwards said. You control your voice with your breath, and speaking on the out breath creates a lower tone. People see us as more competent and are more soothed by hearing a lower vocal range.

Avoid the question inflection, where your voice goes up at the end of your sentence. “When you do this, you’re telling people, ‘I don’t really believe what I’m saying and neither should you,’” Van Edwards said.

"Always breathe out on hello, record your conversations to learn to eradicate the question inflection, and practice delivering hard news, prices and timelines with a low voice tone," Van Edwards said.


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