In preparing for a dinner meeting with potential clients or business partners, it’s normal to focus on research. We master the numbers: costs, units, sales projections. We look up their hobbies in the hopes of developing a relationship that greases the wheels of a sale. In other words, we think a lot about what we’re going to say.
Verbal communication is a critical part of prepping for a dinner meeting. But if that’s where our focus ends, then we’ve abandoned one of the most valuable tools at our disposal. And that’s a real waste, because using this tool costs nothing—and it can make a tremendous impact on your communication efforts during a dinner meeting.
We’re talking about body language, which accounts for 55 per cent (or more) of effective communication. When you’re having dinner with a client or business partner, your eyes, voice, arms, hands, and posture—plus knowing how to read body language on your dinner companion—can influence your ability to make a connection (and, potentially, a sale). So without further ado, we present the following body language guide. Apply these tips to your next dinner meeting and you just may be amazed by the results!
When you and your dinner companion meet, start things off on the right foot by looking them in the eye, smiling warmly, and offering a firm handshake. These body movements convey that you’re confident, friendly, and sincerely interested in making a connection. Then, stand behind your chair until the other diners are seated—this conveys respect and decorum.
No, this doesn’t mean you should stare down your dinner companion as they chew every bite of food. But regular, warm eye contact helps communicate to the other party that you are invested in what they have to say, particularly if you maintain eye contact while they’re speaking. Studies have also found that establishing eye contact for approximately 50 to 60 percent of a conversation suggests you are confident and trustworthy—both traits that are essential if you’re asking someone to put their faith in you, your product, or your business.
Maintaining a strong posture conveys confidence as well as the idea that you’re actively engaged in the conversation taking place. Leaning slightly toward whomever is speaking further suggests that you’re truly interested in what they have to say and that you believe the conversation is important.
Tilting your head to one side while listening to another person suggests that you’re open to what that person is saying and eliminates any body language that could be interpreted as aggressive or hostile. A neutral head position (i.e., your head and chin remain level while you look directly at the speaker) can be more difficult to interpret.
Our arms say a lot about how receptive we are to another person. If you’re attempting to create a genial relationship, then it’s important to keep your arms open rather than crossed over your chest; the latter conveys being closed off to the conversation. Our hands also play a big role in nonverbal communication. Try to avoid gesticulating wildly, as this can overwhelm the listener and/or convey that you’re scattered. Also try to avoid covering your mouth with your hands or fingers, as this can suggest you’re not telling the truth.
Because our legs aren’t above the table during a dinner meeting, it’s easy to forget them. But they still play a role in nonverbal communication. Aim to keep your legs as still as possible. Nervous fidgeting or shaking can convey deceptiveness and will affect your upper body movements as well.
While you’re paying attention to your own body language, it’s also helpful to spend some time reading the body language of your dinner companions. When a prospect makes eye contact, smiles, nods, and otherwise utilizes open and positive body language, this is a good sign that they’re interested in establishing a working relationship. In contrast, if they’re leaning back with their arms crossed and rarely making eye contact, this suggests you may have your work cut out for you if you want anything fruitful to come out of the meeting.
It takes practice to master these techniques, but the attention you give to understanding body language pays off in more effective communication at dinner meetings—and everywhere else in your personal and professional life.