Every time I visit my debutante mother, she yanks at my neck and tells me “shoulders back, stand up straight.” This is sort of embarrassing for a 36 year old. And posture isn’t the only problem with my nonverbal communication skills—being able to read social cues and respond appropriately with my own body language, also known as emotional intelligence (EQ), is something I just never had.
But for those who struggle with the same issues, it may be in our best interest to pick up some skills: A recent study conducted by TalentSmart (with more than 1 million participants) found that people with high EQ make $29,000 more annually than their lower-EQ counterparts. These are folks who are keenly aware of the role that unspoken signals have in communication.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve embarked on an ambitious quest for body language redemption, and have decided to become vigilant in monitoring and improving how I move through the world.
As the CEO of 6seconds.org, a sort of next-gen online finishing school devoted to the development of emotional intelligence, 52-year-old Josh Freedman of Corralitos has spent more than two decades researching EQ and instructing others on the power of nonverbal communication, including a bevy of Fortune 500 firms like FedEX, Siemens, Lenovo, and even the Navy.
“Body language is one of the great ways of communicating what’s really going on inside of us,” Freedman says. “We are interpreting constantly. And we communicate a multitude of emotional messages with our body language.”
For instance, successful people tend to lean in to conversations, tilting their heads ever-so-slightly to signal engagement, comfort, trust, and interest. According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, the award-winning author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, leaning in shows the person speaking they have your complete attention and focus.
Posture is key. (Thanks, mom). Until recently, I had no clue that poor posture can read as a sign of disrespect, signaling boredom. Maintaining proper posture is a conscious choice—one that promotes engagement and respect from both ends of a conversation. Standing up straight with your shoulders back is the ultimate power position, according to Bradberry. Because the brain equates power with the amount of space you take up, slouching, which compresses your form, projects weakness, insecurity and discomfort.
As the so-called windows to your soul, the eyes can be an important power (or weakness) in nonverbal communication. Sustained eye contact communicates confidence, power, leadership, and intelligence, while avoiding eye contact communicates a lack of interest, or worse, that you’re not being trustworthy. Bradberry recommends keeping a deep and level gaze while making an important or complicated point, and definitely not to look down.
Most people hold eye contact longer when they’re listening than when they’re talking, and seven to 10 seconds is the average recommended length of eye contact, says Bradberry. I am not sure how one can really keep track of this without counting one-Mississippis in their head (distracting), but eye contact any longer than this can be perceived as aggressive or domineering. Breaking eye contact by looking to the side shows confidence while looking down signals submission.
But if you’re discouraged about not having the Adonis-like posture of A-list movie stars, the unwavering confidence of Victoria Secret models, or being able to maintain eye contact for more than a few milliseconds, take comfort: emotional intelligence and body language experts agree that these are things that can be learned and improved with practice.
I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to reverse decades of body language blunders. It’s been slow going, and I often find myself slipping into my old, slumped ways—but finding myself there sets off a chain reaction: chin up, shoulders back, tall spine, float the head up. And here’s how I know that transforming the way I’m perceived in the world is entirely possible: Even my mom has cast an eyebrow raise of approval.