I was at a client meeting recently—right after lunch. During the meeting a woman named Mary was speaking about a personnel decision, and I felt a yawn coming on…I didn’t want to seem rude and create a big yawn, so I tried my best to suppress it by keeping my mouth tightly shut. Unfortunately, this made my face look like I was grimacing at her, so she stopped and asked if I felt she was saying something wrong.
I laughed, and I had to explain to her that I was just trying to prevent my yawn from coming out—not that I disagreed with her, or was bored, but that I’d just eaten lunch. Then her whole team started laughing! It was especially funny because over the past month we’d been discussing how nonverbal cues were often misinterpreted by individuals on their team.
This reminded me of a young guy we had in our company a while ago named Eric. He used to scrunch his forehead when he was trying to understand a concept or was thinking about what a person was saying. I remember one time when we were in a meeting and the client (probably more than twice Eric’s age) stopped mid-sentence and asked if he was in disagreement—all based on his scrunched forehead. Eric quickly apologized, and said he was actually just concentrating on what the client was discussing.
Isn’t it funny how quickly we are to judge individuals and/or their behaviors based on their nonverbal cues? I wonder how often these types of situations happen in everyday work life. Miscommunication probably happens just as often in verbal conversations as it does—if not more—from nonverbal cues.
I learned a while ago that I needed to be more aware of my own nonverbal behaviors. Sometimes when I’m reading a document in a meeting I shake my head slightly—not because I’m disagreeing with what I’m reading, but because I’m trying to process what I’m reading. I’ll sometimes tell the individuals in the room what I’m doing just so they don’t view my behavior for more than it truly is.
So, do we naturally desire strong engagement, understanding, and acceptance when we speak? Is that why we become extra sensitive to the nonverbal cues of those with whom we’re communicating when we’re talking? Do we need assurance that they support our position or concept? I think if Mary hadn’t asked me the about my grimace, she would have silently assumed I didn’t support her idea, and she may have stopped talking or maybe even felt like she shouldn’t share in the future. But because she openly asked about it, she was able to realize she was reading my nonverbal cues incorrectly.
If you find yourself getting unusual reactions from individuals (whether in a one-on-one conversation or in a group meeting), ask yourself if the nonverbal cues you’re generating might be the cause. Don’t be the leader who asks a management team to motivate employees and grow the business with a grimace on your face. And don’t be the leader who tells an employee how important he or she is to your firm as you divert your eyes away from theirs during the conversation.
Are you aware of your nonverbal cues that may have been misunderstood in the past, or have you possibly misunderstood nonverbal cues from someone on your team? If you feel like a nonverbal cue is odd based on the content you’re sharing, stop and ask, as Mary did. Or if you notice individuals reacting awkwardly to you, make sure your nonverbal cues aren’t sending a different message than you intended.
This is another article in a series on Michael’s entrepreneurial story and how being raised in a large family has influenced his career. Michael Gunther is Founder and President of Collaboration LLC, a team of highly skilled business professionals who are dedicated to assisting proactive business owners to build profitable, sustainable businesses through results-oriented education and consulting services.