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Is Your Body Language Sabotaging Your Career?

Driver, JaninesmPop quiz: You’re in a meeting with upper management. Though you think that watching paint dry would be more interesting, how should you sit? If your answer, like most people’s, involves a straight back and perfect posture, you would probably be mistaken for an intern or newbie employee, says Janine Driver, body language expert for NBC’s The Today Show and New York Times bestselling author of You Say More Than You Think. Send the right message with these tips.

It Happens to Even the Best of Us

When Driver was on TV discussing the Casey Anthony verdict several years ago, she let her mind wander from the conversation. “To viewers it looked like my face was throwing a contempt party at what the others were saying, but really I was just in my own head,” Driver says. “I got a lot of angry emails for that.”

Getting distracted and letting your guard down isn’t the only time you can be misread. At work, it’s often when you’re trying to present a front—like you’re more interested than you really are—that you may rely on the wrong assumption about body language and say something you don’t intend. Here’s how to make the best impression in three common office situations:

At the conference table:  To appear relaxed and engaged, cross one leg and pop the elbow of the opposite arm over the back of your chair. “With your body open and taking up space, you’re saying that you belong,” Driver explains. Research shows that you’re also more likely to contribute to the discussion. Additionally, when taking your seat, try to sit either diagonally across from your boss or next to her on the side she tends to turn toward. “Everyone feels more comfortable turning one way or another. If you sit on your boss’s ‘bad’ side, you’ll feel like she’s giving you the cold shoulder and she may never see you when you want to speak,” Driver says.

One-on-one in the boss’s office: If your boss hasn’t already done so, move your chair (across from his desk) about 30 degrees off center from his, to the left or right, depending on his favored side. “If you’re directly opposite him, you’re in a fighting person’s pose and you’re increasing both his and your own stress,” Driver says. If you’re going to be confronting him about something, try to arrange it so you’re sitting next to him at a table (again, on his good side), which will make him subconsciously feel like you’re both on the same side.

In front of people giving a presentation: Public-speaking coaches will emphasize the importance of eye contact and a wide stance and suggest touching your chest to signify authenticity, but Driver says that if those moves aren’t organic to you, they’ll come across as phony. “In this case, focus on your intention rather than your body language,” she says. “If you are passionate about what you’re saying and wanting to inspire others, that will come across, whether your hands are in your pocket or you’re shaking like a leaf.” The one rule she does have: Get rid of the podium—or stand in front of it. “Don’t block yourself from the people you’re trying to communicate with,” she explains. It can be scary, but before you know it, you won’t miss the crutch. “People have mirror neurons,’ Driver says, “and they’ll relate to you the more human you are.”