The other night, as we were getting ready to go out to eat, I laid out some clothes to wear. Without saying a word, my wife gave me a look that said, “You’re not wearing that are you?” At that point, I was reminded of the oft-cited statistic that most communication is nonverbal. While the actual percentage ranges from 60 to 93 percent, the bottom line is, more often than not, it’s not the words but the action surrounding them that define communication.
Poker players and popular culture references to nonverbal communication
Watch any of the many televised poker events, and at some point, someone is going to make a play based on a “tell”, or some kind of nonverbal cue they’ve picked up on from their opponent. When you watch TV shows like “Lie to Me” or “The Mentalist”, you’ll see people who study behavior and act on the subtle nonverbal communication that is taking place in the scene. This notion of nonverbal communication even stretches into song, when Allison Kraus and Keith Whitley both sing “When You Say Nothing at All”. So, we know nonverbal cues are a large part of communication, but where do you learn about these cues and what they mean?
Studying Nonverbal Communication
Back in my poker playing days, an oft-cited book on tells was Mike Caro’s book of poker tells. Any serious player who played live games (in a home game, cardroom, or casino) would be strongly encouraged to read Caro and understand how to interpret behaviors at the table. I would argue that the lessons in Caro’s book would apply to business meetings as well as at the poker tables.
How you can apply nonverbal communication at work
Given different behaviors, you can tell what people are thinking during a meeting. For example, people with crossed arms across their body are signaling that they’re closed off to what is being said. Leaning back in a chair is a way of distancing yourself from the discussion. On the other hand, if someone is leaning into the conversation and has their arms at their sides, or maybe spread out in front of them, it suggests that they’re open to what is being said. If you’re giving a presentation and see a room full of crossed-arm people leaning back in their seats, you might want to change tactics or adjust your content, because you’re not getting through to the group.
You can also study nonverbal cues and use them to manipulate peoples’ perceptions of you. By knowing what certain cues mean, you can use them to tell a story that differs from what you’re thinking. Perhaps you want to be supportive of a co-worker’s controversial idea, but without sticking your neck too far out. By leaning into the conversation, you can show some support without having to speak up and draw attention to yourself. What other ways might you use nonverbal cues? Post below and let me know.
TED talk by Amy Cuddy on body language
Edit: I found this talk on body language this afternoon. It’s too coincidental not to post.