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Communicating without words

You're really engrossed in your work and an employee interrupts and asks, "You have a minute?" You look away from your work, make eye contact and acknowledge the request with an affirmative nod. The employee launches off into a story that rabbit-trails down so many paths that you become frustrated and stop listening. You roll your eyes, tighten your lips and sigh deeply. The employee sees that you're annoyed and not interested in what she has to say. The conversation ends. The employee now feels unimportant and insignificant - like a discarded possession. She heads over to some co-worker friends and says, "He just didn't care about what I had to say - he didn't even listen." You didn't utter a word, but you spoke volumes. It's the oldest form of communication. It's called body language.

While teaching at a seminar last year, I was into a segment of the course that has attendees ask questions. I love the questions as it really engages everyone in the class, but it can also push a leader out of his or her comfort zone. After the seminar ended, I sat down to read over the comment sheets. High scores and accolades are always nice, but it's the constructive criticism that helps you improve and grow. One comment sheet said, "I was really put off when I asked Neil a question and he rolled his eyes." Wow. I had no idea I even did that. Maybe I just looked up to contemplate my response. Maybe I was frustrated with myself that it was taking longer to get my point across. Maybe I just rolled my eyes. The reason doesn't matter - a good customer was put off by my non-verbal communication. I'm more aware now and I regard the criticism as a gift. But it still bothers me - and I do own it.

We engage in non-verbal communication almost every waking moment. We're also reading other people's body language. And I'm sure we can agree that there are times where our body language is telling the truth about how we feel even when our words aren't.

As a leader, you need to be aware of what you're communicating at all times. Here are some simple suggestions to avoid sending the wrong message through your body language:

  • Avoid multi-tasking: If you're working on something that needs your concentration and you're interrupted, you can't give your full attention to another until you stop what you're doing. If you attempt to do both, you will compromise both. If you can't accommodate the interruption, the best course is to say, "What you have to say is important and I want to give you my full attention. Can we meet in an hour?"

  • Be present: If your thoughts are drifting elsewhere, your body language will indicate you're disconnected. The most common infraction is when you start constructing your response while others are speaking. Listening requires concentration. It's difficult, if not impossible, to fake attentive listening. The best course is to listen with the intent of clarifying what you just heard. It sounds something like, "From what you're telling me, the challenge you're having is ..."

  • Control yourself: This is easier said than done. Your eyes, breathing, lips, head rolling, body posture, arms, hands and legs all speak. You can appear defensive, insulted, annoyed, bored, indifferent - even hostile. Or, if you pay attention and remain aware of what you're body is saying, you can appear engaged, supportive, concerned, proud, happy - and caring. Sit up straight and lean into the conversation rather than back away. Maintain eye contact. If you're having a conversation that you know will be emotional on one or both sides, avoid gestures and postures like the rolling eyes, crossed arms, pointing of fingers and other body language that is meant to intimidate.

  • Leadership demeanor: It is so easy for a leader to alter the positive mood of a business by appearing worried, angry or under excessive stress. It sounds like, "Our fearless leader is in one of those moods - watch out." Leaders are "on stage" all day, every day. Their words and body language can instill confidence, excitement and energy, or, fear, concern, doom and gloom. When leaders arrive at work, they need to be centered, grounded and aware of everything they're communicating. It's the work of leadership.

Ask some employees how they read your body language. Share how you read theirs. Then, consider a company-wide exploration of how customers read everyone's body language. It can be most enlightening.

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Neil Ducoff, Founder & CEO of Strategies and author of No-Compromise Leadership

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