Body talk

Communication through body language has been going on for over a million years but has only been studied in the past 20 years. It is predicted, however, that its impact on communication will make it part of formal education. Here we interpret a few of the common signals and give practical advice on dealing with difficult situations

• A person who rubs the back of their neck when lying usually avoids your gaze and looks down. This gesture is also used as a signal of frustration or anger and when this is the case the hand slaps the back of the neck first and then begins to rub the neck. If, for instance, you asked an employee to do a task and they had forgotten, when mentioned, they signal their forgetfulness by slapping their forehead or the back of the neck.

If they slap their forehead they signal that they are not intimidated by you having mentioned their forgetfulness, but when they slap the back of their neck they non-verbally tell you that you are literally a pain in the neck for pointing out their error.

• One of the most valuable gestures a negotiator can learn to recognise is seated readiness. Gestures that signal a desire to end a conversation or encounter are leaning forward with both hands on both knees or leaning forward with both hands gripping the chair.

Should either of these occur during a conversation it could be wise to take the lead and terminate it. This allows you to maintain the psychological advantage and to keep the control.

• This is a classic deceit cluster. As he rubs his eye he looks away towards the floor and both eyebrows are raised to the disbelief position. His head is turned away and down, showing a negative attitude. He also has an insincere, tight-lipped smile.

• Inconsistency of gestures is plain here. The man is smiling confidently as he crosses the room, but one hand has crossed his body to play with his watch and form a partial arm barrier. This shows he is unsure of himself and/or his circumstances.

• As an HR manager you are about to counsel an employee whose work performance has been unsatisfactory and erratic. To achieve this objective you will need to use direct questions that require direct answers and may put the employee under pressure.

At times you will also need to show the employee you understand their feelings and even occasionally agree with their thoughts and actions. How can you convey these attitudes using body formations?

Leaving aside interview and questioning techniques, consider the following scene. The counselling session is in your office and, as a manager, you can move from behind the desk to your employee’s side of the desk while maintaining unspoken control.

There are three main angle formations that can be used:

• The open triangle formation lends an informal relaxed attitude to the meeting and is a good position in which to open a counselling session. You can show non-verbal agreement with the employee from this position by copying his movements and gestures. Both torsos point to a third mutual point to form a triangle – this can show mutual agreement.

• By turning your chair to point your body directly at the employee you are non verbally telling him that you want direct answers to your questions. Combine this position with the business gaze and reduced body and facial gestures and your subject will feel tremendous non-verbal pressure.

If, for example, after you have asked them a question, they rub their eye and mouth and look away when they answer, swing your chair to point directly at them and say, “Are you sure about that?” This simple movement exerts non-verbal pressure on them and can force them to tell the truth.

• When you position your body at a right angle away from your subject, you take the pressure off the interview. This is an excellent position from which to ask delicate or embarrassing questions, encouraging more open answers without applying pressure.


Poses and annotations taken from Body Language: How to Read Other’s Thoughts by their Gestures, by Allan Pease. Sheldon Press. ISBN 0 8596 9653 7. Cost £7.99. Contact 020-7387 5282

A Body Language Masterclass will take place at HRD Week on Tuesday 4 April 13.45-1500.

HRD Week runs 3-6 April at Olympia Conference Centre. Tel: 020-8263 3434

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