Author’s note: this is part of a long blog series on our ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. Feel free to look back on previous blogs and explore previous material on communicating and how you can communicate better.
Part 5 – Body Language in Uncomfortable Conversations
I’ve elected to discuss the use of body language in difficult situations for the simple reason that I frequently struggle in these situations. It’s easy to convey the appropriate body language in my daily conversations and when I’m conveying good news.
But when I find myself in difficult discussions such as reprimanding an employee, firing an employee, or correcting poor office behavior, I realize I’m guilty of sending conflicting messages. My posture, hands and position of my body are not conveying the same message as my words. And, as we have seen, our body language conveys more of our message that do our words.
So, with that in mind, it seems to me that the part I need to get right is the body language.
Although there are many messages to be sent in these circumstances, I’ve selected four points to focus on.
The first point is to acknowledge these situations are highly charged, and are full of energy and emotion. To effectively communicate you need to convey the message of calm thereby diffusing the energy of the situation. The best way to present calm is by slowing down. During moments of high stress, we tend to employ a lot of self-comforting behaviors such as face touching, adjusting clothing, and body shifting. When our speech and movements speed up, these comforting behaviors appear erratic and unstable. By slowing our speech and our movements down, these behaviors, if we even use them, appear to be normal and comfortable.
The second point is one of resolve. We have a difficult message to deliver. We are not negotiating, soliciting opinions or patronizing our employees. The reason for the conversation is to solve a problem – a problem we have thought out well in advance and have a solution in mind that fits with the character of the business.
You are not chewing out an employee; you have corrective actions in mind that will ultimately make the employee a better employee and will help the business’ bottom line. Although the employee may not realize it at the time, this conversation is designed to be a win-win situation. While your words may convey this information, it is your body language that reinforces it and cements it.
Conveying a message of resolve must be carefully thought out otherwise it will be seen as an ultimatum or threat. Make and maintain eye contact. This is not to stare down your employee, but to make sure you have their attention and you are talking to them.
Mirror the employee’s body posture. If they are facing you, then face them back. If they are sitting, then you sit. And when they change posture, subtly also change posture.
And, use your hands to make gentle emphasizes. Do not point with your index finger, but use your closed fist with the thumb pointing up (politicians use this all the time). To make a big emphasis, lightly hammer your fist on your open palm.
The third point is listening. All good employees will have something to say in their defense and, most likely, it will be valuable information. The only way your employee will know you are listening, however, is that you look like your listening (because you actually are).
Your facial expression will show the employee you are listening. Let your face show your emotional response to their message. If you are unhappy, frown; if you are mad, close and flatten you lips; nod your head in agreement, shake your head in disagreement; and if you don’t understand, furrow your brow. Do not be embarrassed by practicing these facial features – they will convey more than words.
Also, maintain eye contact and lean toward the speaker. In a business setting, eye contact should be on the eyes or the forehead and occasionally nod your head. And, of course, turn off any technology. Finally, situate yourself so that you are directly facing your employee. If this means moving chairs or moving to a better office, by all means do it.
The forth point is this situation is a good opportunity to show compassion. In addition to the language of a good listener, you need to have an “open” body language. Un-cross your arms and legs and occasionally smile. If the opportunity arises, pat them on the shoulder or some other appropriate light touching. And, finish the conversation with a firm handshake.
How you convey your message in difficult conversations shows you are fully convinced of the importance of what you are saying.
The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1:5.
“our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power. . . and deep conviction.”
While words are important, how they are conveyed is even more important.