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Alison Henderson, CEO of Moving Image Consulting and nonverbal communication expert, has been a friend of mine for many years. I asked Alison if she could answer a few questions for me about how teams can learn to interpret body language communication. If you have any additional questions for Alison, please leave a comment at the bottom of this post, email her at Alison@MovingImageConsulting.com, or visit her YouTube channel.
– Kay Coughlin, CEO, Facilitator on Fire
Kay Coughlin: Why is it so hard for most of us to see how our own body language affects someone else?
Alison Henderson: It is difficult for us to see our body language affecting others because we don’t have much self-awareness and aren’t paying attention to reactions others are having to our nonverbal behavior. We’re interested primarily in ourselves because we think we have to be, to “survive” or “get ahead.” Culturally, we have been conditioned to think about the next thing that we’re going to say and our own agenda – we’re oblivious to the other people in the room. More often than not, we think we are paying attention, but we aren’t really. One great exercise to illustrate this is in a meeting, ask everyone to close their eyes and picture what color shirt the person on either side of them is wearing. Most people won’t be able to.
KC: You mentioned culture as playing a key role in our inability to see the reactions of others. Is this embedded in companies too?
AH: It is embedded, as you say, in our western business culture in general, and certainly in many (if not most) companies. What we are asked to pay attention to is our performance and whether we’re meeting our goals. We have individualized annual reviews and evaluate individual performance. For the most part, we don’t evaluate team performance, except for impact to the bottom line. We don’t look beyond ourselves to realize what and how much is being communicated physically. If we would just open our eyes and notice the behavior of others, we could see we give and get so much more information than we are aware of.
KC: Why do we react in such a physical way to subtle body language? Why do we interpret it as threatening?
AH: Well this is certainly a key issue right now. Naturally, I’ve been talking to my clients a lot about sexual harassment in particular, but there are other ways body language can feel threatening. It might be a cliché, but it is true that eons ago, when we were hunting and foraging, our subconscious was on the lookout every minute for the subtle signs of danger—just to keep us alive. Today, we know these reactions originate in the limbic brain, which is the part of the brain evaluating subconscious behavior signals. It’s an emotion center which literally creates that fight or flight reaction. It’s as old as time and it’s there to protect us.
Confusing reactions happen when we try to analyze those threats using a more rational approach. We have that historic, negative reaction first, then begin to compare it against our modern culture, and then think, “Wait, was that really threatening or did I just imagine it? If I say something will anybody believe me?” Then the anxiety grows because you end up dwelling on it. Your limbic brain gives your body different signals than your analysis indicates is needed. You are getting mixed signals about what you should do: run, or speak up, or something else entirely. That, I think, is where that “toxic-work-environment-feeling” can start.
It’s the subtle body language that is so challenging, because 9 out of 10 people in your office will find something to be innocuous. But you might have one person that had a bad experience and that body language is triggering a memory – and along with it, triggering a physical reaction. This is something you can see easily in animals that have been abused. If you go to a shelter and approach a dog that has been beaten, it will shy away from you, even though you have never been near it before.
KC: Are there any obvious cues that we can learn to watch for, to identify when we are the one causing discomfort?
AH: The most obvious thing that will happen is a flinch reflex. It can be very subtle: a person may just back away slightly, their chest may cave a little bit, they might recede into their chair, they may turn away from you a bit, put their arms up or cross their arms – anything that looks like they are protecting themselves. They will probably stop making eye contact because one way to shut down is to stop communicating visually with you. They may also try to create a little distance between you by moving away slightly, even just barely shifting away from you in their chair.
While you may see a subtle physical reaction, you may also feel it instinctively. It is as if the person is in conversation with you one minute, connected and talking, then suddenly they “disappear” from the discussion and that connection is gone.
KC: There are so many cues to watch for! Am I looking for just one of these or a combination?
AH: That’s a good question. You could be looking for a combination of cues, or for any of these reactions plus a slight delay in further communication. For example, if the person you are talking to just closes their eyes to take a moment to think, they will open their eyes and start talking again immediately. But if they are upset or uncomfortable, they will close their eyes, then open them and pause or halt talking entirely. They may also move their body away from you.
One thing we can all learn to do is test the situation to find out what is causing the reaction. If you are turning away from me, will you turn back toward me if I give you a little space? If so, I should take another step back and see if you relax further.
KC: Given that so much of this is subconscious, how do we unlearn a problematic habit with body communication?
AH: The first step is awareness of our own body language. That sounds like the first step to any treatment plan, but you do have to be aware of a problem before you can change it. It takes courage and a lot of trust for someone on a team to mention to someone else that they have noticed a problematic behavior.
We have to take the blame and the shame away from noticing and discussing body communication. You can learn to say, “You know, I’m sure you don’t even realize it, but when you’re in a meeting and you get excited, you lean forward and you get really close to us. I’ve been noticing some of our team members move away when that happens. You may want to be aware that you do that.”
Receiving that kind of feedback can be as hard as giving it. People are often mortified, having no idea that their body was communicating something uncomfortable because it is subconscious behavior. It can actually be a chance to build trust, though, if you say, “Wow, thank you, I didn’t realize I do that. I’m so glad you pointed it out to me.” Accepting the feedback is key. Becoming defensive serves no one.
You might even be able to create a small signal between you and a colleague to point out questionable behavior when you notice it. Even something as small as lifting a finger off the table could be enough of a cue to help signal the behavior as it happens.
KC: This will differ by culture, but is there an easy way to spot unprofessional body language?
AH: The biggest problem with this question is that everything is in the eye of the beholder. What is unprofessional to one person is not going to seem unprofessional to another. So unprofessional body language would be anything that’s causing discomfort and making people turn away, shut down or disengage from the conversation. That is going to be different if you work in an open office with a ping pong table versus a more traditional office with cubicles and closed doors. It is also going to be different if the people communicating have a big difference in age.
KC: When your voice says one thing but your body language says something else, which one am I supposed to believe?
AH: Science tells us that we will believe the body before we believe the words. If your words don’t match your body language, I’m going to believe your body language. Or, more importantly, if I sense a conflict with your body language, I will be confused, so I may negate both your words and your body language!
For example, if a manager has been instructed by her supervisor to give a message to a team, we can tell whether or not she agrees with that message. It is a particular problem for the middle manager who is tasked with being the bearer of bad news. We sense if there is a disconnect, and it affects how we receive the news. Or, when a manager knows more than he or she is allowed to say, that can trigger a telling body communication pattern because they are concentrating so hard on not divulging information.
As humans, we all know when someone is hiding something. We can sense a lie, and we subconsciously know when someone is not being authentic.
I think honesty goes a long way in any situation. You can speak up when things are getting heated or you see someone starting to get upset. You can apologize if you are the one causing the anxiety. And if you are invading someone’s space and see them start to react by backing away, take control of the situation by stepping back. Learn to become aware of your body language so you can take responsibility for body actions and reactions.
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Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations (iGen/Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X-ers, Boomers and Traditionalists).
Facilitator on Fire's "Connecting Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing multi-generational teams. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations. "Caregiver Coaching" is for professionals who feel overwhelmed with caring for an older loved one.
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