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Mae West once claimed, “I speak two languages, Body and English.” Double entendre aside, she had a point. Fluency in both speaking and understanding body language can take you far — both in your law practice and your life (although maybe not quite as far as it took Mae).
In fact, says body language expert Traci Brown, lawyers especially need a refresher on reading body signals because they often get so caught up in the technicality of their words that they tend not to pay attention to what’s across from them.
“Attorneys really need to look at the bigger picture,” says Brown, a cycling champion turned individual and corporate trainer. “Face it, for the most part by the time someone gets to the lawyer’s office, it’s trouble. Clients typically start out uncomfortable, so it is your job to make them comfortable in many ways.”
First, align your body language to the situation. Make sure that everything you do serves to put the client at ease. Make eye contact. Take on a relaxed posture. Smile. Uncross your arms and your legs. Don’t unconsciously dominate the situation by putting your hands on your hips or spreading out your legs to take up more room. “You are responsible for putting them at ease,” says Brown. “The more comfortable they are, the more receptive they will be to your ideas.”
Second, pay attention to the signals the client is putting out. Some of the more common body language clues indicating discomfort with the situation include: crossed arms — comparing what you are presenting to what they know; crossed legs — turning within and creating a barrier; twisting around in the chair — nervous; and feet pointing toward the door — “that’s where they want to go!” says Brown.
Third, change the unconscious conversation. If you see signs of discomfort, shift your posture, move your chair, mirror their body movements, breathe more slowly — all techniques that can very subtly have a positive effect on the client. If they still seem tense, get up and bring them a glass of water or a cup of coffee. Even the act of shifting gears can shift them out of the negative space they are in. And if all else fails, take them on a walk. “Who says your meeting has to be in the office?” says Brown. “Even if you just walk and talk around the block or wander over to a nearby park to chat, you are taking responsibility for your client’s physical and emotional comfort.”
At its core, indicates Brown, body language tells you what is going on in the moment. If you are paying attention, you can own it.
Mary Ellen Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes frequently about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care for more than 28 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago” and several travel guides, and has been published in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Woman’s Day, Vegetarian Times and other publications.
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