Reading Your Boss’ Mind: Observing the Unspoken

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • What is body language?
  • How you can read it.
  • How you can control it.

In SharpWork’s article on How to Speak Clearly at Work, management consultant Kristin J. Arnold wrote about the importance of tailoring your pitch to audience reaction. But what if you find yourself making that big pitch to your boss, and yet he says absolutely nothing — he just sits there staring back at you? This week, Ms. Arnold addresses the all-important tool of reading people’s minds — or at least observing and interpreting unspoken clues about what they’re thinking:

I remember reading a very popular book about body language in the 1970s. If you crossed your arms in front, it meant you were being defensive. If you crossed your legs toward a person, it meant you were open and receptive to their ideas. And the list goes on. The idea was simple. "Read" common gestures and "interpret" them.

Kinesics, the science of non-verbal communication, has evolved beyond "you do this, it means that." Body language complements our spoken language and provides the depth and feeling behind the words, both on a conscious and sub-conscious level. We act out our state of being with a wink of the eye for intimacy, the lift of the eyebrow for disbelief, a nod of the head to show agreement, a shrug of the shoulder for indifference, etc.

You can enhance your communication skills and understand those of others by observing body language with the following tips:

Consistency in Word and Deed. What you say should be consistent with how you say it. You signal your intentions through your facial expressions, eye contact, physical touch, stance, posture, movement, gestures and closeness to the other person. We have all experienced the incongruency of someone saying "yes," but shaking their head side to side, signaling "no." It makes us confused and we are not sure what to believe – the yes, no or something in between.

When speaking with others, observe their physical responses to the things they say. Often, the physical response is more true to their feelings.

Awareness of Your Own/Others’ Movement. Just as you are conscious of the words you say, be aware of what your body says. We typically don’t notice the non-verbal messages we send to our boss and co-workers. As you become more conscious of your body language, your words and actions will become more congruent.

Chances are that a co-worker is less savvy regarding body language, but a seasoned manager is more likely to have his or her physical behavior under control. Even with people who have practiced consistent delivery, some personal "ticks" or habits remain. Study your boss at meetings or in more casual settings to get to know his or her "ticks." Then when it’s time for your pitch you’ll be aware of the true meaning of his or her reactions.

Mid-Sentence Variation. Everyone has a unique and predictable pattern of non-verbal communication: the way they sit, hold their arms and listen to people. Watch for changes in others’ body language – a shift in posture, a sudden movement, an arm outstretched. Ask yourself: "What is causing this shift?" It may be a good indicator of readiness – to talk, to agree, to object, to intervene. Of course, it may just mean that your audience is tired of sitting and wants to stretch. Take advantage of these shifts and draw that person back into the conversation.

All-Important Context. Always remember to examine what is going on in the environment around you. If your boss or co-worker has crossed her arms in front, it might be that she is cold, not defensive. A manager rubbing his eyes might mean that he is tired, or he just got a new pair of glasses. We typically try to "read between the lines" and make assumptions based on our own reactions and history (or what we read in some book). Test your assumptions before you leap to conclusions.

With co-workers, try starting out meetings and conversations with a quick "check-in" – a word, phrase or statement that allows people you’re speaking or meeting with to say what’s on their minds. This provides an opportunity to learn about whatever might be keeping them from fully participating in the discussion. With managers or bosses, consider starting each discussion with a light, social comment — perhaps inquiring about their weekend, a client they’re pitching, etc. This introduction will allow you to gauge his or her mood and ability to discuss whatever is on your mind.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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