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12/09/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Body Language: Get What You Want Without Saying A Word

By Corrie Pikul

An expert communicator shows how to use body language to close a deal, take charge and generally get your point across.

We don't mean to make you paranoid, but you should know that people are watching you. When you're talking, they're consciously and unconsciously interpreting your movements and gestures, and making assumptions about your mood, intent and competency. You're probably giving them plenty of juicy material to read, says executive coach Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, who points out that, in 30 minutes, two people can send over 800 nonverbal signals.

By becoming more aware of your physical presence, says Goman, a former therapist and author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help -- or Hurt -- How You Lead, you can use body language to tell your story the way you want, with a happier and more satisfying ending.

We asked her to help us adapt her advice for life outside the boardroom.

The Goal: To Negotiate A Fair Price On A Big-Ticket Item Like A New Home
"It's important to realize that salespeople are either naturally good at using and reading body language, or they've been trained to be good," says Goman. She should know; she's one of the experts who do the training. Your real estate broker will be using her nonverbal skills to send you a hard-to-ignore message ("This house is your destiny"). She'll be watching you carefully for telltale signs of your intentions ("This house is my destiny, and I'll do whatever it takes to get it"). Being aware of your body language can guard against her picking up signals that disclose information you're not ready to share.

1. Strike a pose. Goman suggests this premeeting power pose: Stand tall like Wonder Woman, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands on your hips. Research from Harvard Business School has shown that holding high-status poses like this for at least two minutes can stimulate higher levels of testosterone, which is linked to feelings of power, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. "Even if you're feeling a little nervous, you can use this stance to trick your brain into feeling more confident," she says.

2. Shake hands like a pro -- and release them like an expert. Making eye contact and clasping with a firm grip are taught in Body Language 101. Goman adds this extra-credit tip: When you release the hand and break eye contact, don't let your gaze drop. "It's a submissive signal," she says. Instead, keep your head up and let your eyes slide to the side.

3. Watch for cues that the salesperson is bluffing. Goman says that researchers using fMRIs to track brain activity have found that lying requires more cognitive resources than being truthful. Lying also triggers physiological stress responses that are hard to repress. Trained negotiators -- those who sell houses, cars or wedding gowns -- will have learned to avoid dead giveaways like breaking eye contact, but they may try to overcompensate by staring into your eyes for too long or with too much intensity. Similarly, a sudden lack of nonverbal signals from a high-energy person may also be a sign that she's trying to prevent her movements from giving her away.

4. Make a winning exit. After you've settled on a price, stand tall, shake hands warmly and "leave your counterpart with the impression that you are someone she should look forward to dealing with in the future," says Goman. You never know when you'll need another house -- or a good salesperson.

The Goal: To Explain A Significant Life Decision To Your Elderly Parents, Adult Siblings And Other Close Family Members
This could involve moving to a new state (someone else will need to drive Dad to his weekly dialysis appointments), quitting your job (you'll miss the family ski trip) or getting pregnant -- with your fourth baby. Breaking the news of a major life change can throw a family into turmoil, especially when one person's news affects everyone else. You can use nonverbal communication to put your family members at ease and to help them understand your thought process.

1. Let your enthusiasm show. Goman says that neurological research has shown that positive emotions can be contagious.

2. Don't hide. "Showing the torso is one way of demonstrating a high level of confidence, security or trust," says Goman. Step out from behind the cover of a table, couch or your oversize purse.

3. Encourage your family to express their opinions. Once everyone has had a chance to weigh in, says Goman, they'll be more receptive to verbal and nonverbal messages. Realize that you may not be able to change everyone's mind. During the back-and-forth, remember that open palms signify candor and openness, and a straight back reminds listeners of your certainty and conviction.

4. Don't mirror negative body language. If someone, say your mom, gets upset and crosses her arms or clenches her hands into fists, try to keep your body in a neutral position. "Mimicking distress poses can quickly exacerbate the situation," says Goman.

The Goal: To Project Authority As The New Head of Your PTA, Condo Committee Or Neighborhood Association
You have just been elected to a position that requires you to lead a group of opinionated people and to facilitate collaboration while keeping everyone focused.

1. Assume the Wonder Woman position. When speaking to a group of people, it's even more important to look like you mean business. Try not to fold your arms across your body or in front of your pelvis (the popular "fig leaf" pose), which, Goman says, makes people look like they need protection (or a bathroom).

2. Watch your hands. Hand gestures come naturally to most of us, and they help us emphasize important points. To avoid flailing like a panicked Pee-wee Herman when the discussion heats up, keep your hands between your shoulders and your waist. Touching your face, neck or hair are also weak moves. "These kinds of self-pacifying gestures can be interpreted as a signal of insecurity or deception," says Goman.

3. Hold your head level. While a tilted head can express interest in a personal conversation (with a friend or romantic partner), Goman says that it can come off as a sign of acquiescence in a professional context. This brings new resonance to the old advice to get your head on straight.

4. Keep both eyes on your audience. Make eye contact with other people in the room, and read their signals. If you catch them updating their Facebook profiles on their phones, Goman suggests doing something slightly unexpected, like changing your voice level or tempo or asking a question. This should bring their attention back to you.

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