Inspiring people starts at first glance. Non verbal habits play a key role in starting and building relationships based on trust, competence and appropriate emotions. Here are three habits that I observed in the behaviour of the most inspiring people I met as a leadership coach.
Display warmth right from the start
When I bluntly advise participants to my leadership sessions to give a smile and a look at every person they say ” hello” or “goodbye” to, some of them shrug and say “hey, I didn’t know I was attending a checkout assistant training !”. Some others raise an eyebrow wondering if I actually questioned their education standards. Alight ladies and gents ! Let’s go out in the streets and observe. Look at this executive looking man paying for his sandwich while texting ; look at this mother helping her child get dressed while talking on the phone ; look at this couple enjoying a romantic dinner… just separated by a laptop screen ! When was the last time their eyes crossed anybody’s ? None of the above looks like you ? Fine ! Oh and by the way, do you know what you look like when you are thinking of something that makes you anxious ? Do this simple exercise : in front of a mirror, close your eyes and think of something really stressful. Reopen your eyes after one minute. How inspiring do you find the face you’ve just seen ?
The way we feel about people is lastingly influenced by our first impression : studies have even demonstrated that our initial judgement on teachers is not likely to have altered after having listened to them for a whole semester. The good news is we make another first impression every time we meet others. Give yourself a chance to make an everyday good impression by adopting this simple routine : Look at people and smile: Briefly, intentionally, consistently. It won’t take long before these people will think you care for them and therefore, that you might be worth attention.
Demonstrate your credibility
One of my favourite coaching questions is «”In your industry, what does professionalism look like ? “. Here are the most helpful answers I experienced.
How you dress: Recently, a highly graduated economy teacher complained to me that he was receiving lower appreciation from his students than his much less graduated colleague. The former was dressed like his students ; the latter like the school’s principal.
The more you want to display professional credibility or authority, the more help you need from how you dress. Policemen, judges, sport referees or clergymen have a professional dress showing the role society delegates them. Professional dress code is less compulsory in most sectors but the unwritten rule is the same everywhere : dress like those you want to be associated with and you will be respected as such.
Strategic use of distance, posture and gesture : a recent study has shown that the best performing teachers display a four step non verbal strategy when they want to regain control of a disrupted class :
- Analyse the situation from a distance. Standing on the dais helps keep that distance physically and symbolically.
- Move closer to the source of the disruption and make eye contact with the troublemakers until they stop.
- Move back to the teachers desk (if possible onto the dais) to regain eye contact with the whole group.
- Use indicative gestures to draw the group’s attention onto a specific task.
This non verbal strategy implying distance management, asymetric postures, eye contact and use of indicative gestures is useful in any situation of authority.
Ask your body to help manage your emotions
Inspiring people implies authenticity, that is showing the right emotion at the right time, even if sometimes stress, fear and many unwanted emotions that get in the way. Amy Cuddy, from Harvard, found that adopting high power postures before a high stake interaction modified peoples’ hormones and emotions, helping them perform well during the interaction itself.
The most inspiring people I met showed a great deal of warmth and credibility and very little stress. Building on Amy Cuddy’s findings and on my personal experience, here are three tips that will help you express the emotions you need when you need them :
- Sometimes, showing sympathy can be a real challenge. A nurse once confessed that before entering one of her particularly difficult patient, she would take a big “ocytocyn boost” by giving physical care to a “nice” patient or by hugging her colleagues. Whose hand can you press before you show someone you sincerely care ?
- Before very stressful interviews, people tend to curl up on their seat and play with their smartphone. Instead, adopting relaxation postures for a few minutes will lower your cortisol level, that is your stress hormone.
- Before speaking in public or entering a confrontational meeting, adopt high power postures in order to raise your testosterone level. Why do you think rock stars raise their arms as they walk on stage ? Try, and you’ll know.
Your body shows your emotions ; reciprocally, it can help you reach the state of mind you need in order to display an inspiring behaviour.
Cécile Guinnebault is a leadership coach, keynote speaker and author of « Et si je faisais bonne impression ! Communication non-verbale mode d’emploi », Eyrolles 2014.
 Nalini Ambady & Robert Rosenthal : Half a minute : predicting teacher’s evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993.
 Peggy Cadière, « La communication non verbale : un outil pour gérer les perturbations ? »in Cécile Carra et Béatrice Mabilon-Bonfils, Violences à l’école. Normes et professionnalités à l’école, Artois Presses Université, 2013.
 Amy J.C. Cuddy, Caroline A. Wilmuth, and Dana R. Carney. The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, september 2012.
This great article is one in a huge series which tackles the 6 Biggest Challenges Leaders face according to theCentre For Creative Leaderships Report published 2013 Don’t Miss Out! Sign up here to be notified of our subsequent issues and posts