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How to Use Body Language to Be Effective in a Tough Work Situation

I picked up the phone the other morning and as soon as I heard my client speak, I realized that although she was calling at her regular time, she wasn’t using her “regular” voice.

“How are you?” I asked her, with both curiosity and concern. “You won’t believe it!” she started off, but she sounded so distressed that I broke in to ask where she was, whether she was sitting or standing, and where in her body she was most feeling the stress of her situation.

The clients I coach are used to my interrupting them like this. When they’re expressing a lot of intensity, I may ask them to practice a brief sequence of releasing physical tension and returning to a calmer body state to help them release some of the psychological and emotional tension that’s temporarily winding them up. We’re not trying to avoid any of the emotions or pretend everything’s fine; we’re creating both the physical and mental space so we can sort through whatever’s going on and communicate and make decisions more thoughtfully.

We all need this practice. When we’re wrapped around our own axle, so to speak, our thinking can become garbled or frantic, and our tension, anxiety, or frustration can make us less clear and less credible. Regaining physical control and composure can make a real difference. It won’t eliminate whatever the original problem was, but it can certainly shift the nature and quality of our response.

Three Ways to Manage Yourself Physically

Here are three techniques you can use when you have to calm yourself enough to cope with someone who’s taking advantage of your time or good nature:

  1. Get your shoulders out of your ears. If you find that you’ve raised your shoulders and crunched up your neck, you’re not just protecting that vulnerable neck, you’re also letting your body tell your brain that you’re scared. Perhaps more damaging, you’re also making yourself look anxious and weak to others, sort of like a scared little animal trying to escape the notice of the jungle predators. To counteract this tendency, work on the vertical aspect of your presence. Every time you exhale, be conscious of lifting the top of your head toward the sky and dropping your shoulders down.
  2. Loosen your throat. Our throats may tighten when we encounter what feels like a violation of truth or fairness, as if we just can’t swallow the indignity. But, unfortunately, a tight throat also raises vocal pitch and reduces volume. Plus, the tightening can cause you to swallow hard or clear your throat repetitively, which makes you sound nervous or frightened. Then, if you get frustrated with yourself for sounding less than confident, that behavioral feedback loop can actually trigger tears.

    So particularly in a work setting, it’s important to loosen that throat! If you can be alone, try sighing, or exhale strongly using the word “hummmm” which lets you expel air forcefully, creating some vibration at the end. If you’re in public, though, focus on exhaling all the way, through your mouth if possible, and inhaling through your nose, so your brain doesn’t think you’re gasping. Start your next sentence with “Huh” or “Hmmm” to activate your throat, and then ask a slow and deliberate rhetorical question: “Hmmm, well, what do you think about X?” Or “Huh. Well, I wonder whether there’s something we could do about the Y problem.” Don’t wait for an answer; this is just a warmup so you can present your perspective calmly and in your normal tone.

  3. Release your chest if it’s tight or heaving. Focus on slowing your breath, letting it flow in and out of your abdomen, rather than taking sharp, shallow breaths into your upper chest. Check to see if you’re hunched over with a rounded back and shoulders or if you’ve crossed your arms as if to protect your heart. Trust that your heart is strong, and that it can take whatever is happening. Sit up taller, square your shoulders, and rest your hands on the desktop or on your thighs. Think: “I can rest my hands because I’m okay, and I can handle what’s happening. My heart is strong and full of courage.” (The word “courage” comes from the Latin cor, meaning heart.) Now say or do whatever you think is the best next step.

What happened may not be fair or right or even practical, but you are not powerless; you still have choices about how to behave and manage yourself — and once you’ve chosen how to manage your body, you’ll also be able to choose how best to respond to the issue at hand.

The problems my client related during our call were frustrating and disruptive, but they were not insurmountable: a boss who frequently shoehorned just one more thing project or meeting into an already overly crammed schedule; a senior colleague who extended an early meeting and ate up the prep time for a later one. These are garden-variety workplace annoyances, for which solutions exist and improvements can be made. But it’s easier to plan and implement solutions when you’re fully and visibly in control of your own self.

Onward and upward,



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