Business Body Language: A Guide to How to Sit and Speak In Meetings
by Kate Hutchinson
Are you a fidgeter? Do you sit in meetings and click your pen or jiggle your foot? Does the thought of speaking up with your idea make you break out in hives? Or maybe you just can’t sit on your thought, and you feel compelled to interrupt. If any of these describe you, then this is for you. A very welcome part of my Business School Orientation was a lesson on sitting and speaking in class, and everything covered applies equally to a meeting at work, or a business lunch.
Perhaps you’re at a desk while you’re reading this. If not, go find a spot to sit at a desk or table. Sit the way you would normally. Pay attention to how you hold your body. Are you leaning back? Where are your feet? Where have you focused your eyes?
The Body Triptych
According to Professor Dale DeLitus, who addressed my class, there are three segments of the body that you need to concern yourself with: feet, torso and hands. He began with the feet, demonstrating, as the class followed along, where not to place your feet:
- on the legs of one’s chair
- in the air after crossing one’s legs
- resting on the tips of the toes while one crosses one’s ankles
- tucked under the torso on the chair
As DeLitus illustrated, any of these positions constricts the legs and one’s circulation. Extrapolating the constriction, he outlined how it affected the flow of blood through the body and kept one’s energy bottled up. I found this idea nearly yogic in its philosophical nature; in yoga, one attempts to keep the body open, to allow all internal energy to flow. Or, in chakra theory, in order to reach enlightenment, to clear the mind, energy must flow through the chakras. If you are constricting your body by keeping your feet off the floor, you are stifling your energy flow, and therefore your voice, as it comes properly from deep within one’s body. In order to allow for a strong, flexible body, one’s feet must remain flat on the floor, parallel to one another and not moving. (Of course, moving one’s feet can be very distracting. I say this as the person who is often admonished to stop jiggling my knees under the table.)
Now consider the torso. Not only does one’s voice mainly derive from the torso, but it also conveys a great sense of one’s personal attitude. If you are sitting in a meeting, or in a class, and are participating in the conversation, here is a list of torso placements and their expressed meanings:
- Leaning back in one’s chair = I’m very relaxed and not engaged in the conversation.
- Hunched over with hands under the desk = I’m secretly text-messaging my girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/stockbroker where you can’t see.
- Hunched over scribbling notes = I’m not paying attention to what you’re saying because I’m preparing what I’m going to say when you’re done.
- Slouching = I have nothing to contribute, and I’m wasting my time by being here.
- Crossed arms = I hate this meeting and all of you for making me attend.
- Shifting around = I am unable to sit still and/or I have had far too much caffeine today.
So, what should you do? With your feet firmly on the floor, put your rear firmly on the chair so that your lower back is resting against the back of the chair. Sit up straight and lean slightly forward to indicate that you are engaged in the conversation.
Side note: the last item on the “do not” list is a problem for me. I suffer from chronic pain in my neck and shoulders and sometimes I simply must shift in my chair to subtly stretch. Try to do this while the lights are turned down for a presentation and you are less visible, or while someone not close to you is talking. Always minimize the attention you draw to yourself if you absolutely must crack your neck.
Once your feet and torso are in place, one must address the hands. Humans have incredible hands that do amazing things and are gifted with opposable thumbs. Hands serve many purposes, but often in meetings or classes, they are occupied with clicking pens, picking at cuticles or scratching an itch on one’s nose. Even more dreadful are the moments when the hands cover the face, blocking the voice or stretching the skin into strange faces.
Hands should rest on the desk, empty of any utensils. If one must take notes, pick up a writing implement and note the thought quietly, then set the pen or pencil down again. It is quite usual for one to pick up a pen and chew on it after taking a brief note, thereby creating the impression that one hasn’t eaten in days and must resort to snacking on a Sharpie. Or, should one be holding a “click pen,” the urge to click the nib in and out of the barrel can be irresistible to many. Do everyone a favor and avoid these annoying traits.
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