This is one thing Alice Rutkowski, an executive communication and presence coach who has worked with more than 8,000 executives over the past 20-some years, wishes everyone knew:
Body language reflects what you believe about yourself and others.
“Consciously and unconsciously, we are reading others and they are reading us all the time,” says Rutkowski, vice president of executive development at Sagin. “For example, whether you’re sitting or standing, crossing your legs can convey nervousness. It puts your body out of alignment, and being unbalanced isn’t conducive to feeling confident—and people can see that.”
Instead, when you’re trying to join a conversation at a networking event or work function, she recommends what she calls the oak tree stance: both feet planted on the floor, hip-width apart, solid. “This is actually natural to the body and feels good,” Rutkowski explains. “Also, research shows that when you are firmly on your feet, you think more clearly.”
Here, five more tips from Rutkowski to help you feel more at ease in any networking setting:
#1. Think relationships, not conquests.
“It’s common to go to a networking event with the goal of winning people over or gaining some reward. But that puts you in an adversarial or competitive frame of mind. I think you’re more likely to connect with people if you come thinking that you’re building relationships. You’ll go in with a more open and affable spirit.”
#2. Keep your arms and hands loose.
“When we’re not comfortable, we tend to tense our bodies, bringing them closer to the center, and hug our arms across our chest or clasp our hands in front of us or behind our backs. It’s as though we’re trying to roll up into a ball to protect ourselves. This is a stress response, and it can actually make us feel more stressed. After all, if you’re in danger, you don’t want to feel calm—you want to be on guard. So one way to counter this mechanism is to try to relax your arms and hands, which will lower your shoulders and loosen the rest of your body.”
#3. Put the phone away.
“Nothing signals ‘I’m not approachable or accessible’ like a phone. It’s tempting to pull it out when you’re by yourself, especially if you feel self-conscious, but resist that urge and keep your phone in your bag.”
#4. Trust what you think people’s body language is telling you.
“If you see people standing in a tight circle, facing in, they are probably having a very private or intense conversation—and you are right in thinking you don’t want to try to wedge in there. Similarly, don’t try to join a pair where they are both leaning in toward each other. Instead, it’s easier to join a group where people are standing slightly askew from each other or where there seems to be one person doing a lot of the talking and everyone else is listening while looking around.”
#5. Be patient.
“Don’t barge into groups. Bide your time observing and eavesdropping so you can think of something relevant or appropriate to say when there’s a pause. Being patient can especially pay off if it’s a speaker at the Conference who you want to meet—or if it’s someone else who’s surrounded by a horde of people. By waiting for the crowd to thin, you’re more likely to get a less rushed response and make more of a connection that you can build from.”