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How To Recover From Making A Bad First Impression

Participants in an exercise with Mark Bowden left). Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

MONCTON – I began last Friday morning in a room of about 30 people, ready for a workshop led by body language expert Mark Bowden that’s hosted and organized by Venn Innovation.

I was definitely curious about techniques I can use to get people to open up to me more when I interview them. I also wanted to know what businesspeople can learn by understanding body language.

And who better to learn from than the guy who’s delivered keynote speeches internationally and authored a few books about body language, and also worked with the FBI, prime ministers, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

There were many things covered in that three-hour workshop. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned:

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

Whether you’re leading a business or a non-profit, gathering information or selling a product (or just living, really), Bowden said people are always judging you based on your behaviour. People can decide whether they like you and trust you, or dislike you and distrust you in their first meeting with you. In a company, “those judgments will influence every other aspect of their business. The writing, the products, the service,” Bowden said.

That’s why it’s important to know what kind of body language and attitude to avoid, and what can help your case. Because you can say the same thing with a different attitude and get a different response from your audience.

Besides, body language provides context to the words we say, because “we listen not only using sound, we also listen using our eyes,” Bowden said.

“There’s no bad body language. You just have to figure out what result you want,” he said. “You need to change [people’s] judgment, you don’t need to change what you say.”

For leaders in business or other organizations, he said it’s most important to know how people within their organization are following their actions and attitude.

“So often for a leader, some of the behaviours they see in the organization that they don’t like, it’s their behaviours. They’re only seeing a grand mirror of themselves,” he said. “Whatever they’re doing, that’s trickled through the whole organization. The good and the bad behaviours.”

Mark Bowden. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

Bad First Impressions Can Be Reversed

If you’re like me, you’ve probably done something silly in front of someone you met, who you found out later could be important in your professional life. (Oops!) Or maybe you’ve given a limp handshake accidentally, or because you were feeling unwell. Either way, going back to the point above, first impressions matter. But if you’ve made a bad impression, don’t worry, Bowden said you can change that.

The next time you meet that person, show that your behaviour has changed “radically” and own your past mistake, he said. So if you gave them a limp handshake the first time, don’t come back with a slightly-less-limp handshake. Come in with a firm handshake, and use humour to address your past, less-than-stellar handshake.

Don’t Minimize Yourself And Be Open

“Your body and the environment you’re in is going to start to dictate how you behave,” Bowden said. So it’s very important that you maximize the space that you have rather than minimize it. This helps you gain authority in the eyes of your audience, whether you’re selling a product, pitching a vision or proposing a business idea.

But also don’t get in people’s faces. Notice where your territory ends and where theirs begin – i.e., where their stuff is located in front of them. During the workshop, the whole room became uncomfortable when Bowden starts touching people’s notebooks and phones while speaking to them as part of an exercise.

To avoid minimizing yourself, use open body language. Widen your shoulders, open up your chest cavity, smile and use bigger gestures. Don’t have your arms just hanging by your side, and don’t cross your legs while standing. Maintain that open body language as you’re sitting and even as you’re taking a sip of water. When you speak calmly and assertively, but your body language is open, you’re vulnerable and not defensive. This makes people feel safe, Bowden says.

Even on phone calls, moving around in the room, standing up, smiling and using open body language will make you sound better.

“Don’t think about trying to govern your voice, think about trying to govern the large muscle groups,” Bowden said.

We all tried it during the workshop. It feels different saying the same thing while standing tall and your hands moving around at chest level than if you do so with your legs crossed and your hands hanging by the side of your body.

If You Can’t Read The Body Language, Ask

If you’re a salesperson and you see a potential buyer start crossing their arms and taking a step back, you might think it means they’re not interested. But crossed arms can mean dozens of different things and in that case, it’s likely the potential buyer is trying to make an objective decision on the product being offered. So it’s better not to push too hard, Bowden says.

But even if body language can convey a lot of information, unless you’re some sort of superhero, nobody can actually read minds. So if ever you’re unsure what someone is thinking, just ask, Bowden says.

“The best way to know what somebody is thinking and feeling – ask them,” he said.