Last week, we learned a huge lesson here at Denny Civic Solutions – never stand when making a point to a powerful, key decision maker who is sitting. You tip the body language balance of power!

First, a vocabulary lesson. When we talk about body language, we’re really talking about kinesics.

kinesics: (n) a systematic study of the relationship between nonlinguistic body motions (such as blushes, shrugs, or eye movement) and communication (1)

Even the best of us can inadvertently make major body language mistakes without knowing it. Which takes me back to that lesson from last week.

In a meeting with a powerful elected official and several grassroots advocates trying to persuade the official to support our cause, I noticed a few minutes in that I was standing while everyone else was seated around a conference table (to be fair, there were no other seats, and so I thought it best that the grassroots advocates sit at the table).

The seating around the oval table seemed conducive for our purposes. The table was not a barrier but a welcoming “work together” space. The elected leader was comfortable enough to sit in the middle and not at the head. To their right was their closest, most trusted constituent.

But when the advocates’ stories ended and the ask for support was made, body language began to change…and not for the good. When it became clear that the group and the elected leader had some differences, the meeting stalled as the group turned to the guy standing (i.e. me) for solutions. I should have grabbed a chair!

While standing “at attention” – legs straight, together, and parallel, with straight posture – often works as a show of respect, it tends to be effective when the other person is standing too. But standing with one foot in front of the other, trying to engage while the key decision maker is sitting, can be a big body language mistake. Even if you keep your voice, eyes, space, hand motions on point and engaging, standing above a seated decision maker tips the balance of power – in the wrong direction.

Everything matters when engaging key decision makers. Who’s making the ask, where the ask is taking place, when and how the ask is being made. The “how” is when body language becomes so very important – not only standing vs. sitting, but also eye contact, hand gestures, and facial expressions. It’s a lot to think about.

For more, check out this helpful guide. You just might want to grab a chair and sit down first.