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Body Language: Read It or Weep

Understand and respond to nonverbal cues to enhance communication with employees.

0710cover.gifManagers who rely solely on verbal cues to communicate with employees are missing the majority of what their employees are saying. U.S. anthropologist and body language expert Ray Birdwhistell discovered four decades ago that 95 percent of communication takes place in the unconscious mind and is then expressed through body language.

By understanding some basic rules of body language, managers can more effectively communicate with staff. Recognizing and addressing these subsumed nonverbal messages will allow managers to get the full picture of employees’ true feelings.

Body Language in Action

A common problem in communication is the mixed message. For example, one of your employees, Sue, has been working with you for five years. She’s reliable, effective in her job and has a cheery disposition that is appreciated by her co-workers. Today she comes in late, walks straight to her desk with her head hung low and doesn’t greet her co-workers as she usually does. During the morning, she slams down her phone, loudly shuts her filing cabinet and sighs audibly. You ask gently if she is OK. She responds curtly, "Yes. Why do you ask?" You take Sue at her word, even though you sense something is not right.

In this short exchange, you are making the common mistake of trusting your employee’s words rather than the screaming cues in her body language that something is wrong. Without addressing Sue’s mixed message, the two of you go on with your work. Soon, however, you start fielding questions from other workers about Sue’s negative attitude.

Managers can respond to such nonverbal cues in several ways. First, recognize the mixed message. Second, try to achieve clarity by responding to the nonverbal, not the verbal, communication. Third, use a charge-neutral voice to connect with Sue: Maintain an even, matter-of-fact tone of voice to say, "Sue, I hear you when you say nothing is wrong. But did you realize your body language is telling me a different story?"

If you sound accusatory, the person only hears the charge in your voice and not the well-intentioned meaning behind it. A charge-neutral tone allows Sue to hear what you are saying, even if it’s uncomfortable. Many times, the approach will make the employee aware of the mixed message and allow him or her to move out of a defensive position—arms crossed, glaring, pursed lips—and into an open position that allows further communication.

When employees are uncomfortable, they move into defensive positions that make them feel more protected, such as crossing their arms over their chests.

If during a meeting, for instance, three of nine staff members cross their arms simultaneously, they are reacting to what you said or what your body communicated. They have responded by moving into a defensive position. Keep in mind, however, that if the room is cold, they might cross their arms to keep warm. To clarify, simply ask, "Are you cold?" If the answer is "no," then you have elicited the defensiveness and created a barrier to effective communication.

Different ways of arm-crossing communicate different messages: If an employee crosses his arms over his chest with his fingers tucked under the armpit and the thumbs sticking out, this person has a negative attitude about what you are saying and feels superior, as indicated by the thumbs. This employee is saying, "You might have won this battle, but I’m going to win the war." If this person is standing, he might also rock back and forth on his feet to denote superiority.

Another common position features one hand completely tucked under the armpit while the other has the fingers tucked under with the thumb sticking out. This person is saying, "I’m not revealing anything to you, and you can’t make me." Former President Bill Clinton frequently used this nonverbal communication when he was questioned by the media about topics that upset him.

Finally, when a person tucks his thumbs under his arms so only his fingers are exposed, he is not buying into anything you are selling or proposing. You may see this nonverbal display during sales pitches. The customer will cross his arms over his chest and practically hug himself because he feels uncomfortable with the sales approach. The displayed fingers tell the salesperson "No sale!" Your employees might convey the same reaction to your ideas, suggestions or directives.

Uncrossing Bridges

When an employee crosses his arms, regardless of thumb or finger position, lean toward him with your palms facing up or toward each other rather than toward the employee. This shows that you want his involvement.

Acceptance, in body language terms, occurs when the employee uncrosses his arms and leans forward and his facial features soften. His hands may be clasped on the table in front of him, or they may be resting on the table, palms up. All are clear indications that he has accepted your ideas.

The author is a body language expert and a Houston-based author, speaker and executive coach. She can be reached at


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