Interview with International Best-Selling Author and Body Language Expert Elizabeth Kuhnke
Author Elizabeth KuhnkeElizabeth Kuhnke is a Positive Impact Coach and the managing director and founder of Kuhnke Communication. Elizabeth and her team provide services from business development to vocal impact programmes, with clients from a wide range of industries seeking Elizabeth’s help them perform at their very best.

You may be familiar with Elizabeth’s international best-selling book, Body Language For Dummies, but today we are talking about her newest book, Body Language: Learn How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence. We also discussed non-verbal communication and it’s importance in more depth, and Elizabeth even gives us advice on how to exude confidence with body language.

So without further ado, it is my honour to introduce today’s guest, Elizabeth Kuhnke.

Hi Elizabeth, it’s great to have you on our Expert Insights page. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi Jordan, many thanks for inviting me to contribute to Expert Insights. My professional career has been a varied and exciting journey, including acting (stage, television and radio); working as a hostess on cruise ships; presenting for local television and teaching voice and movement for the stage at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada; writing PR and Marketing materials for the fragrance industry; and setting up my own consultancy, Kuhnke Communication, LLC in 2000.

In addition to my latest book, Body Language: How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence (Capstone), I have written 3 books in John Wiley & Sons' For Dummies series (Body Language – now in its 3rd edition; Persuasion & Influence; and, Communication Skills). I am married, have a grown son and daughter and a 2 year old black miniature poodle, named Humphrey. I am passionate about helping women and children and have received numerous awards for my work in education and the charity sector.

As a communication coach, when did you realise the importance of non-verbal communication?

I first became aware of body language as a young child. In addition to being smart, beautiful and a world champion equestrian, my mother was schizophrenic. I could tell when a breakdown was imminent by her body movements and facial expressions. In addition, I studied dance – ballet and modern jazz – and hold advanced degrees in theatre arts. Through these experiences I discovered the power of the body as a transmitter of emotions, thoughts and intentions.

You have just released Body Language: Learn How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence. Could you tell us a bit about the concept behind the book? 

Body Language by Elizabeth KuhnkeBefore the spoken word, man communicated his wants and needs through movements, gestures and facial expressions. Figuring out what one was expressing was a fairly simple process. When words were added to convey messages, meanings became more complex and difficult to understand.

How we communicate, including both the words we speak and the way we express them, impacts on the way people interact with one another. If our movements and expressions are inconsistent with the words we’re saying, the message becomes mixed, leaving the listener confused as to what the speaker means.

The signs and signals our bodies send out indicate our thoughts, feelings, and intentions as well as our moods, attitudes and beliefs. People’s gestures, movements and facial expressions tell you more about their state of mind than any words they say.  The better able one is to understand the meaning of the movements, the better able one is to understand the underlying meaning behind the spoken word.

Body language and communication can get very psychological when you look deeply into it, is psychology something that interests you?

Very much so. I’m fascinated by the way thoughts, beliefs and attitudes impact on behavior and how the reverse is true. For example, if you were to adopt the body language that illustrates sadness or depression (i.e., sagging shoulders, dropped head, turned down mouth, dull eyes) you would begin to feel sad, depressed or at least downbeat.

The opposite is true as well: if you were feeling down and wanted to lift your spirits, you can do so by raising your head, opening your chest (as if arrows were shooting out of your front, back and sides), smiling and engaging your eyes.

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy has studied the effect of body language on moods and discovered that when one adopts negative behaviors such as slumped shoulders, disengaged facial expressions, a bowed head and limp arms, the hormone cortisol which is related to stress, rises.  Conversely, when one adopts positive behaviors including raised arms, an open and expansive chest, a lifted head and an engaged facial expression, testosterone levels rise, leading to one feeling strong and powerful. Just by changing your body language you can change the way you feel and how others perceive you. Simple! (Although not always easy…)

What is a tip for someone who wants to exude confidence with their body language?

This exercise comes from my work in the theatre. Some of your readers may feel uncomfortable doing this, but do it anyway - the impact is measurable. Stand tall. Plant your feet hip width apart and feel your feet connect with the surface beneath you. Imagine energy flowing down your body, through your legs and that a deep tap root is growing from your feet, driving deep into the ground below. This root gives you strength and power.

Also imagine shallow roots coming from the bottom of your feet, providing you with flexibility. Moving up your body, allow your shoulders to rise up together and then lower them, as if they were meeting at your spine and melting down your back. Imagine that a helium balloon is tied to the crown of your head, gently lifting you upward. Feel your back and chest expand and allow your arms to move away from your body, as if a pillow had been placed under them. Finally, imagine that your chin is resting on a cool, still body of water and that you are looking towards the horizon at something that gives you pleasure. This exercise takes only a few moments and conveys calm confidence.

In your book, you discuss the practice of acting ‘as if’ – could you explain this concept for us?

Sometimes clients ask me, “How can I demonstrate confidence / interest / excitement / other when I don’t feel that way?” I respond, “Act ‘as if’ you do.” I tell them that they don’t have to feel a particular way in order to act “as if” they do.

I then encourage them to recall a time when they did feel confident / interested / etc. I ask them to describe what feelings they experienced at the time (“strong / powerful / loose” are some of the words I frequently hear). I ask them to describe what they’re seeing and hearing when they’re in their desired state. What are they doing? What are they experiencing? How are they behaving? The point is to draw on past experiences in order to recreate the sensation in the present when they need to.

This exercise is drawn from Konstantin Stanislavski’s concept of Method Acting, in which actors draw on emotional memory to portray a character’s current emotions on stage. You don’t have to feel the state that you want to convey as long as your body language demonstrates that you do. Interestingly, the more one acts “as if” the more one feels the sensations, ending up feeling confident / interested / etc.

Elizabeth Kuhnke book signing

Is there anything you wish more people knew about the art of communication?

I wish people would pay more attention to the art of listening. If one really wants to communicate one needs to listen not only with one's ears, but with their eyes and heart as well. One has to care about the other person and respect their right to voice their opinion. In addition, listen for the message behind the words. People don’t always express their feelings which impact on the way they deliver their messages. As my father told me many years ago, “You have 2 eyes, 2 ears and one mouth. Use them in that order if you want to communicate effectively.”

How important is non-verbal communication when giving presentations?

Vital. How the message is delivered influences the message the audience receives. For example, if a message is delivered in dull and lifeless tones with little or no physical animation, the audience is going to experience feelings of boredom, lack of interest, frustration, annoyance, and other negative responses.

If the presenter appears captivated by the topic and engages the audience through appropriate body language that indicates the presenter’s own interest in and enthusiasm for the subject, the audience will become captivated as well. Presenters must be careful not to go overboard with their gestures, as too much can be just as off-putting as not enough. The gestures need to be clear, controlled, and consistent with the message.

Are there any examples of cultural differences in body language that you can share with us?

Before engaging with people from cultures different from your own, do your homework. What is expected and acceptable in one culture can be offensive and off-putting in another. I learned this lesson early in my career.

I was running a presentation skills programme for a mixed group, including men and women from China, Japan, Italy, Poland, Germany, the UK and the USA. On the first day, at our first break, one of the participants, a young man from Japan who had been educated in the USA approached me and said these words which I’ve always remembered, “Elizabeth, the way you’re delivering this programme works very well for a Western audience. In my country however, you would not be taken at all seriously.” As an American, my body language was too effusive, energetic, and extreme for a culture that values calmness, privacy and tradition.

If I could give your readers one piece of advice, it would be “keep your fingers to yourself.”  While the OK sign, in which the index finger and thumb meet to form a circle means in America that everything is alright, in Brazil, Russia, and Germany the gesture is highly offensive, as it is perceived as depicting a private body orifice. In Japan, the same gesture signifies money and in France the gesture means “zero.” Confused yet? Here’s another one: The “thumbs up” gesture denotes success in many countries, while in Greece, the Middle East and Australia, the gesture means “up yours” or “sit on this”.

Finger pointing is considered impolite in most countries, and particularly so in the Far East and South America. In Africa, never point your index finger at a person. To be safe, if you have to point, indicate with an open palm with your fingers together.

I could cite countless more examples, way too many for the space we have here, so I’ll leave your readers with this thought about gestures: our body language conveys messages. Make sure the message you’re conveying is what you mean.

If in doubt, avoid using any single finger gesture unless you know for a fact that the gesture is appropriate for the message you want to deliver in that culture or country. The safest approach is to avoid single finger gestures, and opt instead for open hand gestures in which the fingers are kept close together.

Do you believe that actions, do in fact, speak louder than words?

I do. For example, let’s say that you get the promotion that one of your colleagues really wanted.  Your co-worker says, “I’m really happy for you.”  But something tells you he’s not. That something could be a frown, flared nostrils, a turned down mouth, crossed arms, or any other negative gestures and expressions that belie the words. While words convey facts and data, body language reveals thoughts, feelings and intentions.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

At the end of each coaching contract I give my clients what I call “Commitment Cards”. On the front of each card is a different motivational quote. I ask my clients to select one that resonates for them. On the back of the card the clients write 3 things that they will do differently as a result of what they’ve learned. Writing down one's goals and sharing them with another person consistently leads to measurable and positive results.

Over the years clients have made contact telling me how much the quotes have inspired and reminded them of what they accomplished. Below are a few of my favorites. I hope your readers gain some inspiration from these thoughts.

Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw

In order to succeed we must first believe that we can. Nikos Kazantzakis

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.  Pope John XXIII

Elizabeth's latest book, Body Language: Learn How to Read Others and Communicate with Confidence is out now, and is available to download from Amazon and other online retailers. And, if you'd like to connect with the author, you can say hello to her on Twitter at @DiamondPolisher.