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The Business of Body Language

BUFFALO, N.Y. (Buffalo Rising) | Though she may be new to the area, Shea’s Director of Arts Engagement & Education, Thembi Duncan, already speaks Buffalo’s language. With years of experience in the arts and theatre world, including six years as the Lead Teaching Artist at Ford’s Theatre, Thembi brings her expertise from the stage to the community in new and different ways…including conducting a workshop on body language for young people!

Imaginably, a big part of acting and stage presence is a mindfulness of one’s body language. But body language plays an integral role, both consciously and subconsciously, in almost everything we do.

Thembi Duncan

To better understand just how big a role body language plays in everyday conversations and interactions, we sat down to ask Thembi a few questions:

What is body language?

Body language consists of the messages you send through your body movements – consciously or unconsciously. Your facial expressions, hand gestures, breathing patterns, leg movement – even the pace of your blinking is body language. If someone is explaining something to you, imagine if you looked directly at them and blinked slowly. What message might that send to them about how you feel about their ideas?

Would you say body language is our primary means of communication?

I would say body language is the most powerful means of communication. I say that because if our body language is in contrast to our words, people will believe our body language over the words.

Body language can enhance, detract or overrule verbal communication. Verbal and non-verbal communication can work in unison, or they can contradict each other.

How do we or can we communicate by our body language?

We can build relationships, we can show support, we can do so much. It is really about developing a connection with other people; body language is one of our strongest tools in building relationships.

We can express agreement or disagreement. It is about being able to express yourself effectively. Body language can act as a tool of influence, you can help move others towards a positive outcome.

The challenge is that people are often unaware of the story their body language is telling; it is about building and developing a sense of awareness. You cannot focus only on what you are saying with words, but rather, you need to consider the entire message you are sending. Body language and words work together.

Many of us lack self-awareness and don’t think of what others may hear or perceive through our body language. Actors are trained to be hyper-aware of their bodies. They have learned to control the message they want to convey. The more aware you are of what you are saying through your body language, the greater your ability to control that messaging. With a sense of control comes a definition, clarity, and power.

How big of a role does body language play in conversations?

On a scale of 1 to 10…it’s a 20!

Body language plays such an important role because most of us are unaware of what we are conveying, hence mixed messaging. Most misunderstandings are because of our lack of self-awareness. But it’s twofold, we also need to understand what other people need from us. Some people need eye contact, while eye contact may make someone else uncomfortable. If you develop a sense of awareness, not only of yourself, but others too, you can move past your discomfort.

What it comes down to is learning to translate someone else’s physical language into your own. Think of it like this, “Words are like a black and white photo, but adding the body language brings the picture to full color.” Body language allows you to see the contrast and nuances of a social interaction.

What are some important things to be mindful of when it comes to body language?

There are two key things:

  1. Awareness of yourself and the messages you are sending.
  2. Ability to translate the body language of others. Don’t rely on assumptions, use context. Be aware of the full picture. Someone might have their arms crossed, and you might believe they are angry, but maybe they only slept a couple of hours and they are tired. Also, people have a range of physical abilities, so it is essential that you avoid misreading a physical movement that a person cannot control. Learning this takes a lot of practice, because it takes a long time to master awareness. Don’t expect yourself to figure it all out right away.

If you can master your own body language, there is a real power there. We often miss the mark on communication because our bodies don’t match our words. You can smile and not really feel happy…that is OK. But having that sense of control over what you convey through your body language more often than not moves you toward your goal.

How does body language translate from the stage to the everyday conversations, meetings, or relationships?

From theatre theory greats Stanislavski to Uta Hagen, a school of thought developed regarding characterization; you have to dive deep into a character, past the script. Going beyond the words to the heart and personality of the character helps you to understand how to convey that to an audience or to someone else. We see mastery in this principal with actor Jeffrey Wright. He does pretend to be someone else, he wholeheartedly takes on that character; he disappears into the role. He can only accomplish this with a deep awareness and control of every single movement of his body.

Ultimately, you have to understand how to engage with people and understand who we are, what we need, etc. In any exchange, we want something. There is an objective. When you look at your circumstances (context) and your objective, this all informs how we communicate. In doing so, be thoughtful of what you know about the other person, and what the context is to reach a resolution.

Written by BN360


BN360 is the region’s premier young professionals program. Through a variety of programs and events, BN360 focuses on the tenets of: connect, develop, and empower—creating an inclusive and collaborative network of resources that can empower talented individuals to achieve their goals for professional growth and success. BN360 is a program of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

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