Body Language, Non-Verbal Cues, and Small Business

In high-stakes poker games it is not uncommon for the players to wear dark shades to hide their eyes from the others at the table. Players at the highest level of the game are skilled at reading the competition’s “tell” and using this to their advantage. The very best poker players rely on their skills and instinct at calculating the odds that another player has a better hand, but they are also practiced at interpreting non-verbal cues and using that ability to great advantage.

In business, fluency in non-verbal communication can also be a great advantage. After all, good communication skills are at the heart of how we do business. We use our verbal and written abilities every day to communicate our product’s value to potential customers, to communicate our expectations to the team,  to communicate our plans and objectives to investors, and to negotiate the best deal with vendors and strategic partners.  

But, sophisticated communicators understand that it is not just the spoken or written word that can be effective in communicating. The best communicators are also adept at transmitting as well as reading non-verbal cues. Why is this important?  Body posture, facial expressions, gestures, and eye movement can express both intentional and unintentional messages and a business manager who is skilled at reading this can understand a great deal about a person’s mood, intentions, or level of engagement. When we can effectively read other people’s body language the conversation becomes about so much more than the words that are being used. Here are 9 examples that may come in handy at that next negotiation!

1. Eye contact. When someone is responding positively to what you have to say chances are very good that they will be maintaining strong and consistent eye contact with you. Conversely, when your conversation partner or audience is looking away, or making infrequent eye contact, it is a pretty good sign that they are not sympathetic to your message. You can watch closely for this sign as you speak and you can also be aware of your own eye contact when you are listening. Even if you do not agree with what the speaker may be communicating, you can maintain eye contact and avoid giving the impression that you are not feeling positive about their message. Be wary though; boredom can be signaled when they eyes are directed at the speaker but are slightly unfocused.

2. Crossed arms and other barriers. This is often an indicator of resistance and can be interpreted as your listener putting up a physical barrier between you; when the other person moves an object between you, or shifts their body to partially “hide” behind something, you may have trouble. A memo pad subtly shifted at the conference table. A purse or backpack moved in front of their body to provide separation, or any other physical object can be an indicator that the person is protecting their personal space and may signal that you need to switch your message or how you are communicating it.

3. Head tilting. Boredom can often be communicated by the head tilting to one side; watch your listener carefully for this sign. Be careful how you interpret this, as a this can also indicate a feeling of safety or trust. In animals, when the neck or throat are exposed (think of a dog rolling on their back) it conveys willing vulnerability.

4. Blinking. When a speaker is blinking a lot, it can be an indicator that they are not being truthful. In negotiations watch carefully for this and other signs that your negotiation partner is being deceptive or misleading.

5. Foot position. Watch carefully where the other person’s feet are pointing, or if they shift during your conversation. This can often indicate their desire to flee or exit from a conversation. It may be time to shift the topic to reduce their discomfort and regain their attention.

6. Neck or head scratching. Scratching the neck or ear can often be interpreted as disbelief or skepticism. When your listener is doing this, it can be an indication that they have concerns about your message or that you may need to provide more information to clarify. In negotiations, be ready to adjust how you are communicating your point.

7. Soft touch to the arm or hand. This can be used to capture the other person’s attention or to communicate a bond with that person. Professional waiters understand this and may use a soft shoulder touch to make a connection. Be careful, though – many people are touch averse and others may sense a put-down or patronizing attitude.

8. Gestures. These can run the gamut from the specific, “speech-independent” hand signals (think a thumbs-up or a ‘V’ for victory) to the more subtle “speech0-related” which can be used to emphasize what the speaker is saying. Speech-related gestures can include motions such as hand movements to stress of highlight the verbal message. Facial expressions are also included and are probably the most effective means of communicating, interest, emotion, agreement, or impatience.

9. Paralanguage. Wikipedia defines this as “a component of meta-communication that may modify or nuance meaning, or convey emotion, such as prosody, pitch, volume, intonation etc.” In other words, when we are speaking to one another there is great meaning conveyed outside of the words we use. When we are upset, typically, our pitch will rise, our volume will increase, and our rhythm  will accelerate. Surprise or shock may elicit a gasp, something funny will cause a chuckle, and disapproval may be expressed with a tsk sound. Most people are naturally adept at interpreting paralanguage, but those most skilled have a built-in advantage when it comes to relationships of all kinds, business or personal.

Illustration: Lili Chin