How Non-Verbal Communication Can Help Women Get Ahead at Work

Business people talking in office
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Is your body talking louder than you are? And is it sending the messages you want it to send in your professional life?

Nonverbal communication and paralanguage encompass every aspect of communication beyond your words. It’s your facial expressions, your eye contact, your hand gestures, your posture, your tone, your touch, and even your environment. Collectively, they are the “wordless signals that speak volumes,” says Darlene Price, executive speech coach and author of “Well Said.” She estimates nonverbal communication can carry 65 percent to 93 percent more impact than your actual spoken words.

While that might sound intimidating, the beauty of nonverbal communication is that anyone can be good at it. Consider it a skill that can be developed, improved upon, and used strategically in the workplace—and one that’s especially important for women to keep in mind. Certain gender differences in nonverbal cues can keep women from being taken seriously at work and ascending the corporate ladder, Price says.

Want to make sure your nonverbal communication is helping you get ahead at work? Follow these strategies.

Smile and Nod With a Purpose

Did you know you have more than 10,000 different facial expressions? “Not only do women use more of them, but they’re generally more able to identify, interpret, and evaluate the facial expressions of others,” says Ben Sorensen, an executive coach at Optimum Associates.

And some expressions carry different meanings for women than they do for men. Take smiling and nodding, for instance. “The smile is a body language sign of appeasement,” says Price. It’s also a subordinate behavior, which is why the fact that women smile more than men is not necessarily a good thing. While being polite, approachable and likable is important, if you’re overly smiley—especially in high-stakes moments or at times of contention—then people aren’t going to take you as seriously. Pair that smile with a head nod or tilt and you could be putting yourself at a greater disadvantage.

“When you’re with a man, particularly in any type of negotiation, use the body strategically,” says Price. “No (head) tilt—that’s subordinate. Keep your head straight as the man’s usually is. [Keep] your face neutral and only nod and smile if and when there’s a reason to.”  

Maintain a Two-Second Gaze

In a professional setting, eye contact communicates confidence and engagement. So, when speaking in a meeting, you want to sustain eye contact for at least two seconds with each person in the room, starting with whoever is senior to you. “It says you’re credible, you’re worthy of their attention and sincere with what you’re saying,” says Price. The problem is when eye contact is shorter—or longer—than that. In high-stakes or high-stress moments, the majority of us eye-dart instead, trying to find solace in the ceiling or floor. That shows weakness. More than five seconds, on the other hand, turns into intimidation or intimacy—neither of which is appropriate in a business setting.​

Make Low and Broad Gestures

Do you suffer from “Velcro arms?” That’s what Price calls it when your upper arms are attached to your torso, making you seem smaller and more closed off. “Women will have their gestures originate from their elbows, so only their forearms move and not their entire arms,” says Price. Men’s gestures, on the other hand, are more likely to originate from their shoulders, creating low, broad movements that are more demonstrative and confident looking. “The opportunity to use your hands in a discussion broadens the physical presence and power presence for women,” Sorensen agrees.

So start creating more space for yourself. If you’re standing and have your hands together at your waist, try having your elbows out a bit so that they create space. If you’re sitting in a meeting, try putting your elbows on the table and putting your hands together so that you’re making a mountain.

Also, avoid clenching your hands. It communicates nerves and tension.

Stand and Walk Like a Leader

Posture connotes leadership, says Price. How you stand and how you enter a room are both very important. And similar to how women make themselves smaller with their gestures, they do so with their stances as well, by crossing one leg over the other. Women are also more likely to put more weight on one foot than the other, causing them to shift their hips and appear imbalanced. Instead, stand with your weight evenly distributed on each foot. You’ll look anchored, stable, in charge, and in control. Similarly, when seated in a meeting, you want your shoulder blades touching the back of the chair, your arms evenly balanced on both seat handles, and, ideally, both feet touching the ground. When you want to make a statement, however, that’s when you lean in—literally.

Stop Questioning Yourself

Your tone, or how you sound when you’re speaking, is responsible for nearly 40 percent of your words’ impact, according to research from UCLA. And with tone, there are more gender differences than any other type of nonverbal communication, says Price. Her top three for women: upspeak (or uptalk), speed talking, and hedging.

  • Upspeak is the rising intonation at the end of a statement that makes it sound like a question, which makes you sound unsure of what you’re saying.
  • Talk too fast, and your listener can’t understand you. About 150 words per minute is the optimal speed.
  • Hedging involves ending your statements with qualifiers and questions: “Don’t you think?” “Right?”

Record yourself and listen back to see if you have a habit of doing any of the above, or ask friends to do buddy checks. Also, make sure you’re loud enough to be heard. Often women are spoken over in meetings, and it can be due to their volume, says Sorensen.  

Initiate the Handshake Every Time.

Finally, here’s one power move to add to your arsenal: Always initiate the handshake. Make it firm, dry, and confident. And don’t forget to make eye contact, too.

With Kelly Hultgren