Tips for Making Small Talk, Confidently: Why do it and how to do it

Subscribe to Dr Gary Wood's psychology and coaching blogSome people complain that small-talk is superficial and pointless. Often ‘not seeing the point’ is about ‘nor knowing the rules’. You may worry that you’re being boring or too banal or to confessional and controversial. You may not know what topics to choose and what to avoid. Small-talk is a key building block in building relationships. It all begins with ‘a bit of banter’ or ‘chit-chat’ to ‘pass the time of day’. Connecting with other people in a positive way is a way of boosting your resilience and confidence.

This post offers some tips and pointers for confident small-talk skills (adapted from Unlock Your Confidence), which are essentially the same as a basic grounding in communication skills. (There are also several links to posts containing supporting information).

What if I’m too shy to initiate small-talk?

They keys to learning any new skill are practice and relaxation. Often people who claim not to be very good at making conversation just need to practice in some low-threat situation. The easiest way is to ask for directions in a supermarket or ask someone’s opinion about a product. I’m particular good at reading maps, contrary to the male gender stereotype, I’ll just stop to ask directions. When I visit a new place I check it out on-line to find recommendations of places to eat and drink. However, many of the best information comes asking the locals. People like to recommend good places and warn you about the ‘no so good’. People like to share their knowledge.

Relaxation is the cornerstone of elite performanceIt’s also the basis of building confidence and esteem. It’s  the ability to control your own physiological responses. A few deep breaths is often all it takes. If you initiate a conversation in a relaxed state, the other person is more likely to match this state. If you both feel comfortable the conversation flows. So focus on putting the other person at ease too. This is a key principle in my confidence building workshops. If we focus on putting the other people at ease and building confidence in them, this rubs off on to us.

It helps to practice some form of relaxation technique or breathing technique regularly and frequently. The more you practice, the more it is likely to become habit, or ‘second nature’.

Small-talk is not about ‘just filling the space’

When I started contributing to radio features, I was very aware of empty airspace. Radio presenters are aware of this and use the discomfort of the contributors to let them chatter away and fill the airspace. On one occasion, with a rather ‘difficult’ presenter, I realized that the responsibility for the dead airspace was his. I resisted the temptation to fill the space and just kept to what I was comfortable saying. I’d made it clear beforehand that I don’t gossip about celebrities and yet he insisted on asking about a particular celebrity. I just ‘stuck to my guns’ and he owned the responsibility for the dead space and asked me a question I could answer.

We are much likely to get the ‘verbal diarrhoea’ when we are nervous. Take a few deep breaths. Any question is a two-way street and it both people share in the responsibility for the ‘awkward silences’. When we feel stressed, the silences seem longer. When stressed we talk faster. Just remember that it’s okay if there are a few gaps. Every conversation has a little variation and changes in pace. It doesn’t have to be a ‘wall of sound’.

Small-talk is also about listening not just talk

Listening is a core communication skill. People often overlook this. Rather than filling the space with our own words you can give the other person a chance and ask a few questions. A ‘bore’ is jokingly defined as ‘a person who wants to talk about her/himself when you want to talk about yourself’. As a general rule, if you have spoken about yourself for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too much. An easy way to include the other person is just to tag on the words ‘and how about you?’

The great thing about small talk is that it can take unexpected ‘twists and turns’ if you let it. It works better if you don’t have an agenda and just see how things go. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get to make all of your points. So be flexible. There is a temptation, when the other person is speaking, to just ‘screen for keywords’ so you can prepare your next contribution. When you find yourself doing this, it means you have stopped listening. Part of the fun of small-talk is you don’t know where it will lead.

If you lose the thread, just ask the other person, ‘tell me more about. . . ‘. Then you get a second chance to practice your listening skills!

Open and closed questions: how to move the conversation a long

You have probably seen interviews of famous people where the interviewer has branded them ‘difficult’ or ‘uncooperative’. There’s a classic clip of a famous Hollywood star who mainly answers ‘yep’ and ‘nope’ to most of the questions. It’s clear than the interviewer asked too many closed questions that only required one word answers, usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s obvious that if you ask someone ‘Do you like X’ you get a very different response if you ask ‘How do you feel about X?’ or ‘What’s your opinion of X?’. Asking questions with a ‘who, what, where or how‘, will open out the conservation. That’s why they are called open questions. Closed questions are all about the questioner’s agenda. Open questions help along the two-way conversation.

Be patient: The other person may not know all of these small-talk tips

If someone launches into a monologue, just be patient. Not everyone knows the rules of small-talk. Sometimes, we just have to accept the opportunity to practice patience and practice listening skills. Of course, any experience is also an opportunity for reflection. This is important to learning any skill. So sometime after the encounter, just pause and make a few notes about how it went. There’s no need for a full-scale post-mortem. Just a couple of learning points will do.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my book Unlock Your Confidence, I offer a whole chapter (Chapter Four, to be precise) on practical tips and techniques for impression management (making good first impressions) and communication skills including suitable topics for casual conversations and topics more likely to promote heated discussions, scare people or bore them to tears.

What are suitable subjects for small-talk?

Here are a few examples of the kind of topics suitable for small-talk:

Saying where you are from, a recent film or television programme you enjoyed, saying what you do and where you go to relax, pets, recreation interests, books you’ve read, your name, food, the weather, clothes, holidays, places to visit, theatre productions, concerts and commenting on something in the immediate environment.

What subjects should be avoided for small-talk?

Here are some topics that you should avoid:

Talking about ailments, sex dreams, religion, being a know-it-all, discussing your sex life or asking questions about theirs, talking about infidelity or swinging, asking someone’s salary, asking whether people own their own home, racism, political correctness, politics, paedophilia, capital punishment, abortion, vivisection, animal rights, pornography, discussing bodily fluids or body parts that have gone septic or the power of prayer as a tool against evil.

A good test is to consider, is this the kind of topic you would discuss over afternoon tea? Think of scones, jam. clotted cream, little sandwiches with the crusts cut-off and a nice pot of Earl Grey tea. Now add your topic of conversation. Does it go? Theatre productions: yes. Septic body parts: no!.

As a general rule, keep it positive. Yes, we all like a bit of moan from time to time, but follow the 80:20 rule. The moaning can not be more than 20% of the conversation. This is easier said than done. Once you are on a negative train of thought, it’s more difficult to switch to the positive.

Casual conversations: How to get started

Never underestimate the power of a smile. It’s an immediate signal that you are an approachable person. Of course, that doesn’t mean you walk around with a fixed rictus grin. (That’s a sure sign of something else entirely).

Assume you are meeting someone for the first time. You exchange named. That immediately leads on to ‘What do you do?’ This is a coded phrase for ‘what’s your job?’ It can be a little dull, unless you are in those dreadful networking situations where people stand about handing out business cards and try to work out whether you are of any use to them whatsoever.

As a twist, try asking ‘How do you spend your time?’ Or ‘How do you like to spend your time?’ This gives the other person the opportunity to talk about something they like. This generates positive feelings which are to a certain extent projected on to you. Some people hate their jobs but most people love their own hobbies and pastimes.

Small-talk and body language

Probably, you will have heard of the often quoted body-language myth that words only account for 7% in any encounter. Take this with the proverbial pinch of salt. The research was carried out in laboratory conditions and may not be generalizable to the real world to the strict 7% rule that is often (mis) quoted. The research mainly applies to first impressions. It’s fair say that if you give off the right non-verbal signals then the words are less important.

You don’t have to study a whole body language book to get the basics right. In fact, we have already covered most of it: relax and smile and show an interest in what is being said, that is, listen. If you do this then the body language will take care of itself.

read_confidence_posts_r_jus copySo that’s it. Those are the basic skills for a successful casual conversation. These also form the basics for good communication skills. Small-talk skills are a great set of skills to have. It means that you can take the lead in awkward situations, especially where people don’t know each other. It’s rare that efforts are rebuffed, most of the time, people are just relieved that someone broke the ice.

With small-talk, perhaps the most important tip is just to have fun with it.

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Training the Trainer & Psychology – Going Back to Basics and Avoiding Common Pitfalls

With learning and curiosity right at the top of my values system, it’s no surprise that I love to attend training courses as much as I like to deliver them. Unfortunately teaching as a profession is often dismissed by the old George Bernard Shaw put-down “People who are able to do something well can do that thing for a living, while people who are not able to do anything that well make a living by teaching”. This is usually paraphrased as ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’.  It implies that teaching is not something that has to be done well. This leads many people to think that anyone can teach or train. In part this may be true, but not everyone who tries their hand at teaching and training does it well. The means that I get to sit through courses where trainers make fundamental mistakes. Often this is because they have not been trained (or taught) to train (or teach) of if they have, not particularly well.  Sometimes this means that the new trainer gets trained in the experienced trainer’s bad habits or misconceptions. The old philosophical question is never so pertinent when directed at teaching: ‘How do we know what we don’t know?’

In this post, I discuss the basics of structuring training sessions so that you appeal to the learning needs and styles of most people in your group. I use these principles in my own training and in my books. All of these principles are based on my training in psychology, teaching and coaching and are backed by evidence-based research of how people learn. The post also shares a few ‘howlers’ of things not to do.

When your students say ‘I might be thick but. . .’

Some trainers keep making the same fundamental mistakes and the people who suffer the most are the ones on the receiving end. There is a power differential in the trainer/trainee relationship. By the time the trainee (student) has worked out that the trainer (teacher) doesn’t know what they are doing. the student has already run the ‘Is it me? Am I thick/stupid?’ script in their head. So if a student begins a question ‘I may be thick could you explain that again?’ it is a signal for the trainer to take two actions:

  1. Challenge the ‘thickness’ hypothesis
  2. Explain the material in a different way

My standard response is ‘No, you are not thick. Different people learn in different ways and it’s just that I haven’t explained it in a way that connects with you’. Chances are that is there’s one student feeling ‘thick’, there are others who feel the same but didn’t have the courage to speak up for fear of appearing foolish.

Knowledge is supposed to be empowering not confidence-sapping. So, it’s your job as a trainer to accept the challenge of explaining things in different ways.  All of your trainees/students will benefit. For you, the trainer, it’s part of your professional development. You consolidate your knowledge by explaining it in a way that’s out of the ordinary (mundane) for you.

Trainer / Teacher: Know your audience

Often trainers are so enthusiastic about their topic that they forget that the aim is to communication information not offer a sermon. There are lots of people out there calling themselves ‘evangelists’ to indicate their enthusiasm for a topic. Of course this assumes that people want to be ‘evangelled’ to!

This label says more about the trainer’s self-image than the message. If you can gauge your audience’s present level of knowledge, it becomes easier to build on this. Without this you run the risk of patronizing them, boring them or losing them. It’s fundamental to any training session or lesson is that you work from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Also consider what’s in it for the audience. What take-away value does your talk offer? How can you apply it to their lives and experience?

If you don’t know, then include more interaction between your trainees/students where they get to discuss how the material applies to them. A crucial part of each session is to ask your audience what are their aims and objectives for the training sessions. Apart from working from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the other two guiding principles in any training session (lesson plan) are:

  • Start from the simple and work up to the complex and,
  • Start with the concrete and work up to the abstract.

Although it’s good to give examples of your own personal experience to bring the material to life, it’s just as important to get examples from the students/trainees. That’s the way the material will come alive.

What happens when you don’t put your students’ needs first

In my first year at university, the statistics lecturer decided to begin with the most complicated statistics test on the syllabus. The main reason was that it fitted in with his research interests. He wanted us to collect data for his PhD dissertation and combine that with the coursework requirements. We got to write-up his experiment as part of our coursework and he got to keep the raw data. Not surprisingly, collective apoplexy was the order of the day. The defense in the staff-student committee was that it was a legitimate strategy to expose students to most difficult statistics first so that by comparison everything that followed would seem easy. I was the student representative and argued that all that had been achieved was to reinforce the negative attitudes that students have to statistics. It shouldn’t have happened. It was a prime example of students getting in the way of university business. The whole of the first year statistics course ran this way. I had studied statistics before and still I struggled. For many students it was the first time the had encountered statistics. Not a great start.

I know of one trainer who was forever fiddling with his phone and would regularly stop to read his text (SMS) messages. Another trainer I experienced used to set the trainees up with a practical exercise then nip out to feed her pets (she lived locally) and would return with magazines and snacks which she proceeded to munch her way through in class. Both trainers appeared to be going through the motions and communicating to the group that they were not important and the material was not important. It’s the clear that the trainees (students) weren’t supposed to notice or weren’t supposed to question the trainer’s authority. Although these are extreme examples, the point is that the trainers’ and teachers’ behaviour form part of the ground rules for the session. These actions would have undoubtedly spoken louder than the course content.

Reading the room – Verbal and Non-verbal cues

I’ve lost count of the training courses (and lecturers) I’ve attended where the trainer or teacher neglected to ‘read the room’. So much nonsense is written about body language (non-verbal communication) but in this instance you only have to read the gross (obvious) signs.There are few subtleties in the messages people give when you’re boring them or annoying them.

If people are fidgeting and yawning, it’s a sure indication that whatever you’re doing in the session, you’ve been doing it for too long. My own favourite example is of a trainer who thought it would be a good idea to tell the audience what he did in an organization but take 50 minutes to do it. It should have taken 60 seconds, as that really was a much as the audience needed to know. The additional time it took was more to do with  ‘ego’. To achieve this seemingly simple aim, the trainer offered one slide projection of an organizational flow chart and then proceeded to talk us through it. After ten minutes, it was clear that many people were just staring straight ahead, and robotically nodding with eyes glazed over. After about 20 minutes everyone in the room (except the trainer) had clearly had enough with many people stiffing yawns. At 30 minutes a man with ‘additional learning needs’ (our saviour) yawned very loudly, stretched his arms and then blurted out even louder ‘God, isn’t this boring!’ Now all were gripped by fits of the giggles (except the trainer) which they tried to suppress. All around the room, heads bowed, shoulders twitching, and faces contorted trying to hold back the laughter. Still this had no effect on the trainer whatsoever who continued for a further 20 more minutes telling us what he did! Throughout the session the trainer forgot to ask ‘Do the audience really need to know all this?’ He overlooked the principle of ‘what’s in it for them’ in favour of his encyclopedic knowledge of the organizational structure and his role in it.  No one else in the room could give a damn (and that’s being polite).

Ground rules

As a trainer you are responsible for who the session unfolds. Usually it is common practice to tell people where the toilets are and basic health and safety to tell them where the fire exits are. It’s also import to let people know about basic ground rules such as confidentiality, valuing other’s opinions and so on.

I attended a theatre-based improvization day beginners workshop. There are a number of basic rules for improv such as ‘always accepted an offer’, ‘follow the follower’, and ‘always make your partner look good’. Among the cardinal sins are blocking offers by saying ‘no’ to everything, working in jokes to get a quick laugh and trying to steal a scene at the other person’s expense. A key thing in improv is that we learn by mistakes which are discussed in an open forum. So with a beginners’ class it’s crucial clearly to set out these basic rules. That way when people break the rules, it doesn’t come as such a surprise when they get feedback in front of the group. The group facilitator (trainer) can remind everyone of the ground rules and then highlight the transgression. That way everyone learns and it’s not too painful fr the person who made the error.

However, I have witnessed courses where people have been for breaking the rules even though the rules had not been clearly articulated at the start of the session. Further more the public ‘dressing-down’ of ‘bad, selfish person’ went on far too long so that the whole of the group began to feel uncomfortable. By this time squirming had overtaken the learning. Even an interjection of  ‘Come on, it’s not as if he’s murdered anyone or anything’ did not halt the tirade. It’s all to easy for trainers in this case an ‘evangelist’)  to be so passionate in their quest to get everything right that they lose sight of the audience. If your aim is to create a playful, engaging atmosphere, that won’t be achieved through fear of making mistakes.

Aims and Objectives: Let everyone in on the lesson plan

People learn better and can process information more effectively if they have a context.This has been demonstrated in memory experiments in psychology. Give two groups a page of text to memorize. The only difference is that one group gets a heading to contextualize and the other just gets the text. The one with the heading remember more of the text. The heading offered something to ‘hang the information from’.

A training session, lecture or lesson should have a road map open to all. You only have to think about going on a journey to an unfamiliar place. The journey back always seems shorter. That’s because you now know the landmarks, milestones and signposts. Occasionally you might want to take learners on a mystery tour but if you do this, don’t be too surprised if people fidget and shout out from the backseat ‘Are we there yet, Dad?’  So unless it’s an experiential workshop where it’s key to let the process develop usually people like to know what they are letting themselves in for.

Variety is the spice of a training session

Psychologically we all have quite short attention spans. No it’s not just you. On average, after about 20 minutes of doing the same activity our ability to process information at full tilt begins to diminish. The exception is if the task in question is a personal passion. So you can see that there maybe a conflict if you assume that everyone shares your passion for a subject. For you, 50 minutes of non-stop lecturing might be a wonderful experience. To your audience it may well be 30 minutes too much. To avoid this, remember the rule of 20. Chunk your training session down into 20 minute blocks. If you really must lecture for the whole session, then after 20 minutes, give the audience five minutes to discuss the main points with their ‘neighbour’. Then invite the audience to shout out the points they came up with. Give feedback, add any important points you think they missed then carry on bor. . . sorry I mean lecturing them. Okay, so this will eat into your lecturing time but that few minutes will help to consolidate the knowledge. It’s no point in cramming in as much information you can if you don’t respect basic principles of psychology.

Basic Psychology: Know something about how people learn

Throughout this piece I have alluded to the importance of the psychology of learning. This doesn’t have to involved years studying psychology. You can achieve a great deal with the basic principles we have covered here. In addition, recognise that there are different learning styles and nor all people respond to the same way of receiving information. One way of typing learners is through sensory preference. All this means is that people prefer to use a particular channel linked to their senses. The main ones are: visual, audio and kinesthetic. The audio people may prefer a training session with someone talking for the duration, although even they need a break. The visual types prefer diagrams or video demonstrations and the kinesthetic lot like to experience and ‘feel’ things for themselves. The easiest way to cater to all needs is to create variety in your sessions.

Some learners are more reflective and some like to ‘get stuck in’ and try things out (active versus reflective learning). Again just build in opportunities for both. Some learners like to see the big picture (global learners) where are some prefer a step-by-step approach (sequential learners). If you begin with a summary of what trainees/students will expect and then follow-up with the steps, you cover both bases. Some are more theoretically inclined and some are more practical.

(I have written other posts aimed at students and how they can maximise their learning with basic psychological principles, see: 17 Top Study Skills Tips From a Psychologist and Lecturer)

It’s important to recognise that it’s not possible to satisfy every person in the room, every minute of the time. However, by creating variety in your lesson plans and training sessions you are more likely to address the needs of the group.

So here’s a recap:

  • Build variety into your training sessions and lesson plans to tap into different learning styles
  • Follow the 20 minute rule. After this time that there is a serious drop in the amount of information people will absorb. The remedy is to switch activities or have a short break.
  • Start from the familiar (so you engage people) and work up to the unfamiliar, so you take them on the journey
  • Start with the simple stuff and work up to the complex. Simple stuff includes offering definitions for key concepts. If basic definitions are fuzzy you can be sure how everyone is making sense of the material
  • Start with concrete stuff people can relate to and work up to the abstract.
  • Read the room and be flexible. If people are yawning or fidgeting, it’s an indication that you need to do something different.
  • What take-away value does your training session / lesson plan have?

Anyone teaching or training will make mistakes, that’s part of the process. The secret is to reflect on your efforts and take stock of what you do right and where you can connect better with your audience. Part of this process is vicarious learning. So it’s important to be continue your personal amd professional development by being a student.

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Dr Gary Wood is a Chartered Psychologist, author, life coach and broadcaster. Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodHe has taught in several UK universities and regularly contributes psychological insights and coaching tips in the media. He runs his own coaching and training practice and research consultancy in Birmingham and Edinburgh, UK.As well as academic papers he is the author of three self-help books, including Unlock Your Confidence.


Why There’s No Such Thing as “Too Much Confidence” or “Over-Confidence”

We often hear the phrase ‘over-confidence‘ (or ‘too much confidence’). There is no such thing!  If it seems too much or ‘over the top’ then it’s not confidence. It might be arrogance, aggression, over-compensation, blind faith or even delusions. Most importantly, it may indicate lower self-esteem. These over-the-top displays of bluff, bluster and bravado are nothing but a smoke-screen.

‘Fake it ’til you make it’ confidence is based on stress

Outer displays of ‘over-confidence’ are part of the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach, whereby you behave confidently until you actually believe it and until it becomes ‘part of you’. So they begin as a way to counter a lack of self-belief. Yes it’s good to take action and indeed confidence does need a leap of faith, however, real confidence, true self-assurance starts within. At its root, confidence is about feeling comfortable in your own skin. If it seems ‘too much’ it’s about covering up for discomfort. Inner confidence is cool and level-headed. ‘Over-confidence’ is hot-headed. That’s because psyched-up displays are more likely to stem from the classic stress responses of fight or flight. most notably, the fight response!

Building confidence is like building rapport

In face-to-face interactions people tend to model and match each other as they build rapport. So they may begin using similar words and gestures as the other person. This happens spontaneously. This is why, embarrassingly, you may find yourself starting to speak in a similar regional accent to the other person. A similar thing happens with confidence. When we are around truly confident people, it rubs off. Confidence is positively contagious. You begin to relax and this brings out ‘the best in you’ and you pass this on to others. The thing about body language is that if we focus on relaxing we don’t have to worry about faking it. The body language takes care of itself. If everyone is a little too ‘in your face’ and intent on ‘faking it’ then the encounter is based on lies and that can be stressful. If you are stressed, then it’s not confidence.

The difference between assertiveness and aggression

We prize assertiveness but it is often confused with aggression. The concepts are often used interchangeably but are very different things. In an assertive state we can stand our ground and make our point and still accept that another person doesn’t necessarily have to accept our view. We can be assertive and still be quite calm. On the other hand, aggression is all about making sure another person accepts our point of view. Aggression is all about force. It’s all about the fight. So if a person dominates a space and leaves no room for other opinions or for others to contribute that’s not confidence. It’s aggression or maybe even outright bullying.

Relaxation is the basis of elite performance

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn my workshops, first  I focus on relaxation. In a relaxed state we are able to access a broader range of emotional responses, skills and abilities. Professional athletes adopt a similar strategy. they begin by learning to take control of their own stress response. This doesn’t mean that they perform in a ‘semi-comatose’ state. They learn plenty of techniques to psych themselves up too. The point is that the cornerstone of elite performance is relaxation. This is what we build upon. So in my workshops, I invite people to take risks and have fun. I’m aways the first in the workshop to risk looking foolish. Usually by the mid-morning break, everyone in the group is chatting as though they are good friends. At least one person comments on that when I ask for feedback. They are surprised at how quickly the group forms. And for my part, I never cease to be amazed at how quickly people will grow and take risks if you provide the necessary conditions. Many of them have attended workshops and training courses where they have managed to get through the whole day without learning anyone’s name. That never happens in my workshops.

Fear and respect are not the same

We all learn more efficiently when we are relaxed and amongst a group of like-minded people, not when we are stressed in a group of (hostile) strangers. This is the basis of my confidence-karma approach, that is, we build confidence in ourselves as we pass it on to others. We begin by relaxing ourselves and then focusing on putting others at ease.  The most frequent challenge I get to this approach is from managers who question whether they will get respect if they ‘try to be everyone’s friend’. Nowhere in my book or workshop do I suggest we should try to be everyone’s friend. Being a boss and focusing on putting people at ease do not have to be mutually exclusive. It’s common amongst managers to confuse fear and respect. Respect is earned and fear can be overcome. You will get a lot of respect from being a person who empowers others.

No such thing as ‘too much confidence’ with the Confidence-Karma approach

So that’s why according to my approach, there is no such thing as over-confidence or too much confidence. Confidence people bring out the best in others, they don’t scare them into submission.

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Body Language for Confidence?

True inner confidence

I’m often asked the question ‘how can I use body language to more appear confident’. This is based on the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to confidence building. It’s what comes of watching too many reality TV shows where the phoney ‘put on a show’ approach prevails. This is anything but real! Confident people aren’t those who walk into a room and say ‘look at me, look at me’. Confidence is about being comfortable in your own skin and that doesn’t have to be loud and ‘in your face’. True inner confidence is a quiet confidence. Outer displays of brash bravado are primarily based on deceit.

The Opposite of Stress

The ‘fake it to make it’ approach is about creating a false display to mask feelings of anxiety and stress. This is nothing but a cover up! Stress triggers the fight or flight response and narrows our focus to physical and mental (cognitive) processes associated with survival. Putting on a show is a survival strategy. It’s a subtle way of putting up a fight. Inner confidence comes from a different place, that is, the breadth of emotions and experience than are more than just mere survival. To tap into the breadth of human experience, we need the opposite of mere survival and stress. That is, we need to tap into the emotional, physical and mental state in which you will flourish.

Relax and Use Your Strengths

In my confidence building workshops I ask people when they feel most confident. invariably the answers reveal two themes: (i) when doing something relaxing (ii) when using skills and strengths. So rather than consider fake, up-tight, survival driven displays, instead consider what it feels like in your body to be relaxed and ‘laid-back’. Top athletes begin by controlling their own stress/relaxation response. That’s the basis of elite performance. It’s also the basis of true confidence.

Get in Touch With Your Body

The ‘fake it’ approach is about covering up how you truly feel. This is rather like dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Instead we need to take a deeper (longer term) view, such as taking yoga or Pilates classes, going to the gym, meditation, dance or Zumba classes. Try out a range of things to find something you enjoy. Try acting or improvisation classes. All of these activities will get you more in touch with your body and your feelings. People often say they ‘feel good about themselves’ after these activities. That’s confidence! All of these activities will all help to improve good posture which has positive impact of your general health. Get outside regularly for walks. Research has shown the regular walks in nature boost self-esteem.

Practise deep breathing techniques which help to oxygenate the blood and keep hydrated. Football trainers teach that even if we are dehydrated by a few per cent, it can adversely affect cognitive functioning, that is how we process information. On top of these take a hobby or spend time practising your existing skills (playing to your strengths). Do something you are good at and relish the time you spend doing it.

Body Language Will Take Care of Itself

Decide which of these suggestions you try.  It’s important to give them a good chance to work so try things out as personal experiments for a month or two. It needs something that you do regularly and frequently. At the end of the trial period review the impact on you and your life. When you hit on the thing that’s right for you, the confident body language will take care of itself. As a bonus, you’ll also probably feel a lot fitter too!


Things to do instead of obsessing over body language

Body language, properly non-verbal communication, has become something of an obsession. I’ve written a number of posts about the supposed 55-38-7 rule and how it is often used out of context. A number of people have suggested that if I ‘shoot something down in flames’ (however false it is), I still need to suggest an alternative. Well the whole ‘body language’ thing is almost a cult, largely promoted by the evidence-less NLP (neuro-linguistic movement). I’m sure that no one would suggest I provide an alternative to a cult. I will anyway. Don’t join one.

So what are the alternatives to hours spent poring over body language books and attending expensive courses. They are surprisingly simple. Mostly body language devotees are concerned about deceit. Such as, how can I present myself as a genuine person?

There are tips to appearing genuine: (i) Relax; (ii) Be yourself; (iii) Don’t tell lies.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodRelaxation is the basis of confidence. Invest time in relaxation and spend more time on activities where you feel comfortable in your own skin (that don’t involve drinking, talking drugs or binge eating). Body language often happens ‘naturally’. When we try to force it, we look phoney. Over analyzing our every non-verbal signal in minute detail can only have a paralyzing effect. All that happens is that we give out mixed signals which are more likely to be interpreted as deceit. These are all principle keys in my book Unlock your Confidence. I emphasize techniques that unlock our inherent abilities.

A lot of the obsession about body language is the need detect or hide deceit. Detecting deceit in not an easy thing. There are so many factors to take into account. Non-verbal communication needs to be interpreted in clusters. No individual signal is definitive. Context is everything. There is also so much rubbish written about non-verbal communication that we can never protect against someone else’s faulty interpretation. Non-verbal communication is about ‘broad strokes’. Many pop-psychology books just make things up that might look good in a press release and so picked up by newspapers and radio programmes that need to fill space with a bit of whimsy. So take the easier path, invest all that time that you would spend on studying body language on finding ways to relax and control your stress response. This in turn will make it more likely that you are comfortable in your own skin and are able to be yourself.

The original  Albert Mehrabian body language research was concerned with first impressions and also congruence between verbal and non-verbal signals. We have to bear in mind that the original experiments were laboratory based and so lacked a little real-world significance. As systems theorist Peter Checkland commented ‘Life is too quixotic to be modelled’. So, we need to take the non-verbal communications statistics with a dose of scientific scepticism. Unfortunately, self-help writers, television producers and magazine and newspaper editors simply don’t have the time, space or training to do this. Body language is often the favourite bit of ‘science’ to slot into analyses of reality TV. It’s a great lever to shoe-horn in a bit of cod-Freud.

Considering the role of body language in forming first impressions. Relaxation and being yourself are key. These are far more important than having to remember lots of manipulative bod language tricks that invariably look phoney. One important from the Mehrabian research is that we are all pretty good at working out when words and gestures are at odds with one another. The signals are meant to be taken as a whole to give us a general impression. That’s as often as much as we need. If you set about trying to find out if someone is truthful in an encounter, you’re behaviour may become so odd as your eyes flick here there and everywhere that the other person may interpret you as a liar. They in turn react to their perception of your deceit and become more guarded. You interpret this as their deceit because you have neglected to consider the effect your weird behaviour is having.

Confidence doesn’t come from having a set of party tricks and cod-psychology at your disposal, it comes from relaxing, being yourself and putting others at ease. If you get the impression that someone’s words and gestures do not match, then use more words to find out. Get more information. Ask questions.


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Only Words? (Yet another post on the 55-38-7% body language myth)

If any body language ‘expert’ wants to prove the myth that words only count for only 7% of any communication I have a challenge.

Polish up on your open-gestures, upright, relaxed posture and perfect your smile, then next time you are on TV and get to say about 100 words, just work these seven words into the conversation and see exactly how much they count for. According to the myth, your words won’t matter, so let’s see.

Deep breath, relax, smile and repeat after me:

Sh*t, P*ss, F*ck, T*ts, C*cks*ck*r, M*th*rf*ck*r, c*nt.

Keep smiling and  try it in church, at a job interview or to a police officer. Visit hospitals and old people’s homes. Work the words into a family member’s eulogy or at the bingo hall instead of ‘house’.

So your posture, gestures and lovely tone of voice got you through all of these situations without even the ‘batting of eyelid’ or the raise of an eyebrow? Thought not.

Now actually read the research and stop talking out of your ar$€ !


Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

Matching Your Values to Your Vote (UK General Election 2010)

One of the things I do as a personal development coach is to help people allign their values and goals. The same applies to casting a vote in an election. It’s an important decision and really needs to reflect your values and what you stand for. Sometimes when the issues are complex it’s difficult to come to a clean, unambigous conclusion. So here are three resouces designed to help you match your values and attitudes to your vote in the 2010 UK General Election:

  1. Quiz One: Who should I vote for?
  2. Quiz  Two: Who should I vote for?
  3. Quiz Three: Who should I vote for?

My field of expertise is attitudes and attitude measure so it was interesting to see that although all three quizzes take a slightly different approach, they all came to the same answer (for me a least).  So, take a few minutes and see if they work for you too.

p.s. Unfortunately quizzes 1 & 2  have a rather ‘mainsteam, three party bias’ although quizz 3 has on option to fous on each of the four UK countries.

PsyCentral Top Ten from 2009

Here are the top ten PsyCentral posts from 2009:

  1. Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (& Other Power Tools)
  2. Dematerialization: Crystals & Car Keys
  3. The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains?
  4. Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz
  5. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule
  6. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions
  7. The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness & Biological Fact-ness
  8. Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?
  9. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing!
  10. Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!

Phone rings. Number withheld. It’s a journalist who wants some expert insight into why it is that men get all ‘letchy’ (lecherous) after a drink. It’s for a magazine article aimed at young women. Of course what she doesn’t want to hear is that women get ‘lairy’ (loud) after a drink.  Why is that? I say ‘tomarto’ she says ‘tomayta’. . she says ‘letchy’. . I say ‘lairy’. . . oh let’s call the whole thing off. . . and move on to some hack who doesn’t quibble about gender differences. . .and has not expertise in anything except saying what journalists want to hear.

So why could it be that men get more ‘letchy’ or ‘flirty’ after a few drinks in a sexualised commercial environment such as a night club? Er. . . perhaps that would be the effects of getting drunk, exactly the same as for women. I know that ‘letchy’ and ‘lairy’ are exactly analogous . . but the point is that alcoholic lowers inhibitions irrespective of the contents of our undergarments. It can also make us more aggressive. Check out the police statistics. . .it’s not just the blokes who are kicking the living daylights out of each other on a Saturday night. . . no mere spectators. . . ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’.

During the brief exchange, I was asked about body language in the context of ‘men getting letchy’ after a drink’. Well what’s the body language of anyone who has drunk so much that they have lost control of their cognitive and motor faculties. . . a quick lunge for anything they can get hold of before falling to the ground and rolling around in their own vomit!

Now I like the occasional tipple as much as the next ‘lairy letch’ (well maybe not that much). . . and I know that these gender stories may seem like a harmless bit of fun. . but such excursions in gender psycho-babble serve to over-emphasise the differences between men and women or create new differences that only really exist in the world of magazine sales. The fact is: when we get drunk we all make arses of ourselves! Binge drinking is a massive problem with both men and women, especially with alcoholic drinks designed to taste like soft drinks.

These one-sided gender-based stories are there just to raise a smile and fill up a bit of space, but in the process they fuel gender stereotypes. They create a ‘gender filter’ whereby we look for differences where there aren’t any. Of course the additional of a bit of ‘body twaddle’ (sorry I mean ‘body language’ ) always makes things look a bit more scientific. It’s interesting the most of the ‘leading lights’ in body language have no qualifications. Many of them offer conjecture and home spun, common-sense, back-porch, pseudo-Freudian waffle presented as ‘evidence’. Many of them confuse ‘biological sex’ with ‘social gender’ and over-emphasize sex and gender differences and seem oblivious to the fact that Western gender roles have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.  Whereas the evidence shows that predominantly, men and women have more things in common than things on which we differ. And surprise, surprise. . .Hoo hoos, minkies, willies or winkies. . . alcohol doesn’t discriminate!