As little as half a second of movement can reveal a person’s true feelings. Someone maybe nodding in agreement but their body language tells a different story. Being able to identify and interpret subtle body signals can help managers to communicate more effectively. Robert Phipps explains why you should learn to speak body language.

Good communication is the bedrock on which successful teams are built.

If managers want to inspire, develop and co-ordinate their employees effectively, they must first be able to work out what each of them thinks and feels about their roles.

While more managers are recognising this and holding regular conversations with their team members, all too often these discussions are far from the honest, open, two-way feedback sessions they should be. An ability to read and understand body language is invaluable if managers want to find out what’s really going on behind their team members’ polite smiles.

Brian Sounds, a team manager for a large engineering firm, found this out after only a few months in his present job. During an annual appraisal of his warehouse assistant Janice, Brian asked if she was happy with the changes he had made to the upcoming schedule. She replied with an affirmative 'yes' but her body told a different story as she pulled back her head and crossed her arms gripping her bicep with one hand.

‘From her reaction I could tell something was wrong, there were obvious tensions,’ recalls Brian. ‘But because she’d said 'yes' – and because I didn’t really want to redo the schedule – I chose to ignore them.’

Within two weeks of the new schedule’s implementation, Brian had received angry phone calls from three important clients complaining about late and incomplete deliveries. In a meeting to discuss the failings, it transpired that the new schedule had left the warehouse understaffed at the busiest points of the week – and that the whole warehouse team felt it was unworkable.

‘No one had dared to tell me – their new boss – that I’d made a big mistake,’ explains Brian. ‘But if I’d just probed Janice about her negative body language when I’d had the chance, the problems with the schedule could have been averted there and then.’

An enhanced understanding of body language can give managers that extra edge and help make team communication channels run smoothly. When you speak to one of your team, you tend to know instinctively whether or not they have actually taken on board what’s been said, be it positive or negative.

But, as a manager, it pays to develop this gut feeling into a more concrete understanding, so that you can be entirely confident how your advice, directions, criticism or compliments have been received. If the words and actions don’t match, you then have the opportunity to reinforce your message, challenge you team member or store this information for future reference, instead of just accepting their verbal words of agreement.

Everybody has their own pattern of behaviour when it comes to body language and, while there are general rules that apply, it is important to observe and get to know each individual’s own habits in order to get the best out of them. Managers should study their individual team members over a period of time and learn how they use their bodies to express themselves.

The more you know about body language the less likely you will be to misinterpret physical responses in your team. For instance, it is easy to assume that when a person crosses their arms it is a defensive action. This is often the case, but it also can display a relaxed attitude. When people watch television at home their arms are often loosely crossed.

There is a close correlation between open arms and legs and the openness of the mind. In one famous experiment in the 1970s, half the students in a university lecture were told to cross their arms and legs and the other half were told to keep their limbs uncrossed. At the end of the session, those students who had uncrossed arms and legs were found to have retained 40% more of the lecture and found the lecturer more amusing.

Reading between the lines...

The way an individual sits, stands and walks, the way they gesture with their hands and face, and the direction they move their eyes as they recall their reason for being off sick last Monday morning, collectively reveal what they are truly feeling. Studies have repeatedly shown that the verbal portion of a face-to-face interaction accounts for a small proportion of the overall message being conveyed, sometimes as little as seven to ten percent.

The non-verbal indicators actually say far more than the words that are used. Watching someone’s head movements is a great way to see if they agree with you on any particular point. The ‘no’ gesture is so instinctive people very rarely realise they make it. Sometimes it is a microscopic shake, more like a tiny shudder, or they might just move the head one way very quickly, which is usually accompanied with their eyes going downwards before returning their gaze back to you. What you have there is a typical cluster or sequence of gestures that convey a negative attitude.

Watch their shoulders too, as these can often indicate how a person feels. Some will raise them high when things are getting tense, others will drop them as though completely deflated by whatever you have just said or done.

In many cases it’s not the face that gives us the most information, as people know that their face is the main area that others will tend to focus on while talking to them. Usually, it is the rest of the body that shows what’s really going on, especially the hands, legs and feet. Being so far from our brains, the legs are the hardest to control. Negative behaviour can often be observed through fidgety leg movements.

There is no direct correlation between crossed and uncrossed legs, but if you notice a person has their legs crossed and one of them is bouncing on the other, it is probably a sign of anxiety. By observing a person’s leg movements and feet direction you can also see if they contradict the expression they are showing you with their face.

If in doubt, go with the body, as the body doesn’t know how to tell lies, only the conscious mind knows how to construct a sentence that is different from the truth. The body simply reacts to the stimuli it’s just been sent in the form of negative energy, which has to be gotten rid of somewhere – and the legs and feet are more often than not the dumping ground.

There are several other straightforward and reliable indicators of mood that managers should familiarise themselves with. If someone is rubbing the back of their head or touching the back of their neck while talking to you, it means they are not finding the conversation interesting.

If someone is standing before you with their hands in their pockets, it means they are feeling unsure or suspicious. Excessive touching of the face, playing with hair or jewellery, scratching or nervously ringing hands are all signs of negativity.

During a meeting or presentation, you know that you are being listened to intently if the listener is keeping his left hand over the right one, with his palms down. However, if the right hand covers the left one, the person is probably disagreeing with what is being said and is waiting for an opportunity to interrupt. He may also pull his earlobe at the time he is just about to interrupt.

If the person you are talking to remains still with their eyes fixed on you while you speak, this shows they are more interested in what you are saying than anything. If you find someone you are talking to is pointing at you with either their knees or feet, it is a clear sign that they are focused right in on you.

Windows to the soul

The way a person moves their eyes can also be highly revealing, especially when they are recalling information from memory. This is very handy to know when listening to someone who might have reason to withhold information, for example, the salesman, the habitual skiver or the office practical joker who has gone too far.

When recalling visually stored information, people’s eyes move in a particular direction, usually up and to the left, a sign that they are accessing the right hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for visual picture retrieval. If an individual looks up and to the left while answering a question, then they are generally looking to access the truth and remember what happened.

If a person looks up and to the right, they are accessing the left side of the brain responsible for creativity. In other words, they could be making up an answer or altering one into a lie. Watching and learning how someone accesses this information can help you when formulating questions you want to ask them.

Although most people follow this left-right rule, there are some who are just the opposite. It is good to determine which is which before jumping to conclusions. You can find out the correct directions of a person by asking some leading questions like ‘What was the colour of your first car?’ to get a response from memory, and ‘What is your opinion of the Prime Minister?’ to get a creative response.

Our facial expressions are there for the world to see and we have become masters at disguising our true feelings by masking them with the appropriate smile, frown or grimace. However, we still give away our true feelings with ‘micro expressions’ that flash across the face for less then half a second before they are rapidly replaced with the one you want the other person or people to see.

This is something that cannot be controlled, it is an involuntary movement that happens without our conscious intervention. These unconscious signals are incredibly reliable indicators of someone’s emotional state or attitude towards you and your point of view.

Managers who want to know a team member’s true feelings about something should watch out for their first instant reaction when the subject is raised. It’s all very well knowing what to look for in others, but, as a leader and manager, there are several things people will look for in you.

By controlling what you say with your own body language, you can ensure you make a positive and lasting impression. When addressing a group, for example, your posture is one of first things people will look at to judge whether or not you mean business.

By standing up when you present to a group you instantly give yourself a better presentation than when seated, as it opens up the chest and helps you breathe better, giving you more oxygen to your brain and helping you think more clearly. It also has the added benefit of raising your height, which subconsciously adds weight to your message and lets others know to take what you say seriously.

The way in which you look at people will also tell them how serious you are, as we have different types of gaze. Most of the time we look at people from the right eye over to their left and then down to the nose, mouth or chin. This is known as the social or friendly gaze and if you continue with this while trying to discipline someone, they will not take you as seriously, as if you simply change your gaze from going down to the nose, mouth or chin and instead remain fixed on a point just above and between their eyebrows, suddenly they will know you are completely serious.

If, on the other hand, you are seeking to gain rapport with someone, one of the simplest ways to achieve this is to breathe at the same rate as they are. Breathe out as they talk and breathe in when they do. This is something the conscious mind would find very hard to notice, but it has the effect of quickly putting you in sync with them and making them feel completely comfortable in your presence.

This is known as mirroring or matching and it works wonderfully providing you are not too obvious. When Brian Sounds recognised just how valuable it would be to be able to read body language accurately, he quickly enrolled on a specialist course which helped him to identify and respond appropriately to his staff’s gestures and movements.

‘I am now far better at recognising when my team members are unsure, anxious or angry about something, and can address these problems quickly and confidently,’

explains Brian, whose department has flourished under his leadership.

‘I can also modify my own body language to make sure I’m giving off the right signals when it matters, so I’m not only better at communicating, I’ve also found it’s helped me be more influential at work – and in life in general.’

Closed-off negative postures include...

  1. Shoulders hunched forward show a lack of interest or feelings of inferiority.
  2. Rigid body posture reveals uptight and anxious.
  3. Crossed arms can simply be because a person is cold or it can be a defensive action protecting the body
  4. Tapping fingers indicate agitation, anxiety and boredom
  5. Fiddling with hands or objects shows boredom or the person has something to say.

Open positive posture include...

  1. Leaning forward is generally a sign of interest.
  2. Fingers placed over the mouth with head tilted slightly shows they won't interrupt.
  3. Maintaining good eye contact.
  4. Nodding approval as you speak.
  5. Rubbing chin shows they're considering what you've said.