I’m Paying Attention…Really!
The old adage says, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This familiar phrase is used countless times in many varieties and ways to drive home the point that a visual conveys more information than words in many cases.
Another old adage goes like this, “Actions speak louder than words.” We decided to combine the best of these two adages to communicate this key fact about how body language and verbal communication. What you say carries far less weight than your overall body stance and behaviors. If you were to catch a glimpse of yourself in an invisible mirror, would your body language and your verbal language match up? If not, better make a change fast if you want to impress stakeholders or managers.
Listen to Me!
Pointing, waving or gesturing with the fingers can communicate many different messages and not all of them are socially appropriate. There are a few, which if employed, are the equivalent of career suicide (commonly known as “shooting the bird” or “giving the finger”).
Shaking a finger at another person is interpreted as rudeness by almost all cultures. It is the non-verbal equivalent of scolding, accusing or admonishing, and does not increase your positive social currency.
To use a finger in a more positive nonverbal way, point the index finger downward and tap lightly to emphasize an opinion or point. If you catching yourself doing finger-shaking during meetings, nip the habit in the bud.
Eye Contact Communications
You have probably heard of the technique or been encouraged to maintain good eye contact as a way to let the other person know that you are listening attentively. However, were you aware that depending on the other person’s race and culture, maintaining an unbroken period of eye contact could be perceived as the height of rudeness?
According to Kevin Hogan, Psy.D., when interacting with those from the Japanese culture, your best option is to vary eye contact with periods of looking downward to show respect. The lesson here is the use of body language and other methods of interacting with others must be tailored to the circumstances and the individual. There are no one-size-fits-all rules so it behooves project managers to do their due diligence and learn more about the backgrounds of their stakeholders and team members.
Is This the Message You Wanted to Send?
Intentional or not, the non-verbal communication pictured here is one of sexuality because of the relaxed cross of the leg, which exposes a wide expanse of leg. A better choice for females is the crossed ankle pose, with signals confidence and self-restraint.
Men can carry off this pose and exude assurance when the knees are relaxed. Tense knees signal stress, while a pose that includes positioning one ankle atop the opposing knee and placing a hand on the ankle is the male equivalent of communicating sexuality. For either gender, tapping the leg or foot signals impatience and a desire to end the conversation.
My Time Is More Valuable Than Yours
Probably very few individuals have not been caught in the act of performing this non-verbal faux pas. Sneaking looks at your watch, PDA or other objects is a sure way of telling the other person that he or she is not very important. Do this too often and you could lose your job, your trust or your credibility with others.
Overcome this and project positive body language messages by maintaining eye contact (being careful to match it with the other person’s cultural mores), leaning forward slightly and smiling. Practice reflective listening and make the other person feel like the most valuable individual on the face of the Earth. This raises your social and professional currency with stakeholders, team members and superiors.
The Message of the Wandering Eye
Eyes are the windows of the soul, but they are also effective non-verbal communicators. Did you know that depending on whether you are looking up or down, you could be signaling a wide range of messages from shyness to slyness to sexiness? Here is a general guide to how to interpret these signals:
Looking up can communicate thinking, visualizing, imagining or remembering. Open-ended questions will help you determine which the correct message is.
Looking down can convey submission, flirtation, guilt or respect. In addition to some gentle questioning, an understanding of the rules of etiquette for the other person’s culture and customs will give you vital clues to decode the body language.
Let’s Just Agree to Disagree
There’s quite a lot of communication going on here, and not all of it is verbal. Let us see if we can decode the key pieces.
- The standing figure to the right on the image could be communicating a desire to move away from the conversation or adopting a defensive stance if things aren’t going his way.
- The seated figure that is leaning forward could be signaling attentiveness, but his body posture seems rigid and tense. The move could be an attempt to hear or understand better.
- The speaker is leaning back in his chair and extending a hand, which typically signals openness or a gesture of offering to the other person. His body posture is open and relaxed. The palms are turned upward, which indicates he has nothing to hide.
- In contrast, the figure adjacent to the speaker also has outstretched hands but the rigidity and spread of the fingers combined with his facial expression seems to convey tension or anger.
Without a soundtrack to give us definitive clues, we will never know how this conversation ends, but the body language gives us clues about the participants.
A hands up, palms out stance combined with a rigid body stance is a clear communication and a signal for you to back off and give the other person more space. Everyone has a “bubble” or area of personal space that they need to maintain around themselves to feel comfortable and secure and it’s important not to intrude on this space.
What is the best way to deal with this non-verbal communication if you want to salvage the relationship, the sale, or the project? Take a few quick steps backwards or lean back to give the other person more room. Lower your arms to your side and relax your body posture.
Is the Individual Receptive or Non-Receptive?
The seated figure with folded hands has already made his decision. The decision could be to take an action or not take an action but the bottom line is he is finished with this conversation. The other figure is either still in presentation mode or unaware of the non-spoken communication, but unless he stops and reads the non-verbal cues, he is wasting his time.
Project managers should take note of this: if a stakeholder’s eyes are glazing over or roaming the room, you have lost their interest or their support. Get the conversation back on track immediately, or your project is on the fast track to failure. The same holds true for dialogues with team members. Interactive meetings rather than lecture-style presentations keeps interest high. Scan for body language clues to boredom to keep yourself on top of the game.
Can’t You See I’m Busy?
An unknown source once said, “Your actions are speaking so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.” Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you paste a fake smile on your face and you make eye contact, the right message is being sent. Clenched jaws and teeth, a rigid, tense body posture, and attention focused on phone conversations or emails tell the other person that you are too busy to be bothered with them.
It is easy to make this mistake when projects are creeping out of control and stress is mounting. You may be tempted to try to multitask and hold conversations with stakeholders or team members while you do other tasks. Take our advice: Just don’t do it. The collateral damage to relationships, future opportunities, and client goodwill are not worth the risk.
- Secrets of How to Read Body Language, Kevin Hogan, http://www.kevinhogan.com/bodylanguage1.htm
- Eye body language, http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/parts_body_language/eyes_body_language.htm
- Finger body language, http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/parts_body_language/finger_body_language.htm
- Leg body language, http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/parts_body_language/leg_body_language.htm