How to be Nonverbally Inclusive
“Now that we’re back in the office part-time, I love seeing everyone interacting again,” a coaching client told me. “But a few people who were hired remotely during the pandemic still hang back. One newer employee said everyone knows each other already and she doesn’t feel included. I know the team isn’t trying to exclude her, but I can see how she might feel that way. What can we do?”
Inclusiveness rarely happens automatically. By definition, if some people are “included,” others are excluded. For example, your company or team culture automatically excludes people who don’t work at your company or on your team. And that’s fine. You want to create a shared identity. Culture is a good thing! But often, even the people you want to feel included, don’t.
Excluding happens easily. Including often takes intention.
I’m not referring to enacting policies that provide equal access for marginalized groups. That’s a huge, important topic, yet beyond my expertise. I’m talking about everyday nuts-and-bolts communication skills (or lack thereof) that can subtly—and often unintentionally—make people feel like they do or don’t belong. When you’re in a group setting, especially if you’re a leader or addressing the group as a whole, a few minor adjustments can make a big difference. Create a more receptive and accessible atmosphere with these simple communication tips:
1) Expand Your Gestures. Make sure your gestures match the size of the group. When speaking to the group as a whole, gesture toward the people at the edges instead of those right in front of you. When you’re in a small group but want others to know they are welcome to join, gesture beyond the confines of your little knot of people.
2) Use Open Body Language. Avoid barriers such as crossed arms or having a laptop screen (or lectern, for speakers!) between you and other members of the group. Keep your arms open and free to move, including on video. In person, shift your body so you can face different people over the course of your time together. As Joe Navarro says, you face things and people you feel positively toward, so you can demonstrate inclusion by literally turning to people.
3) Make Eye Contact. You will naturally face and make eye contact with the people you like best or feel most comfortable with. So it’s easy in a group to make eye contact primarily with one or two people. Make a point in small groups to look everyone in the eye at some point. With large audiences, be sure you look beyond the first few rows. Look all the way to the back corners and fringes of the audience. In video calls, look at your camera.
Once, I was chatting with a couple of acquaintances at a networking event when two of us got into a lively discussion. At one point, I glanced to the side and saw the third person… I’d forgotten she was even there! I immediately realized she felt left out (because she was!) and simply turned my body more toward her and made a lot more eye contact. Before long, instead of awkwardly watching the two of us banter, she joined in. She just needed a nonverbal invitation.
Your hands, body position, and eyes let others know whether or not they can join you. To be inclusive, broaden your scope.
4) Use the Language of Connection. Say “I,” “you,” and “we” to create a shared identity and avoid impersonal third person references. For example, “That was great!” creates less connection and feels less inclusive than “We did a great job!”
5) Address the Group. Generally, when you’re one-on-one, give the other person your undivided attention. But if you’re in a group, giving one person undivided attention excludes everyone else. Save private topics for private venues.
Recently, I spent some time with a friend and her daughter. The daughter was mostly on her phone, but during a lull asked, “Mom, did you want the red or the yellow?” Huh? Red or yellow what? I wondered. The two of them proceeded to have an entire conversation about some unknown topic in front of me. They weren’t trying to exclude me, but I had no way to participate. After a few moments I asked, “Are you talking about flowers?” Once prompted, they provided background information and suddenly I was included in the conversation again.
Don’t make people work to feel included when they’re already a part of your conversation. If you’re in a group, address the group. Specifically:
- Provide context. Often a single line of explanation will help those who are less informed follow the conversation.
- Direct answers to everyone. When asked a question, share the answer with everyone. Especially for presenters, when an audience member asks a question, repeat it so the whole audience hears the question and direct your answer to the group. Otherwise, regardless of group size, you end up with a one-on-one conversation and a bunch of awkward onlookers.
- Speak loud enough for everyone to hear. School kids aren’t the only ones who exclude others by whispering. Adults do it, too. Avoid side comments, muttering under your breath, or actual whispering in your neighbor’s ear. Don’t make a show of leaving people out.
6) Reduce Exclusive Language. When everyone present understands jargon, acronyms, and inside jokes, using them can create a shared culture. Go for it! But also be careful—the uninitiated will feel like outsiders. Either avoid or explain your group’s vernacular so everyone can understand. This takes awareness: Do you know what is unique to your group?
7) Draw People In. Be sensitive here. Those who are new, quiet, or on the borders of your group may not want to be put on the spot. But when it would be appreciated, gently draw attention to those individuals who often go unnoticed. For example, you might direct the conversation toward a topic that interests them, give them a job or role within the meeting, or refer back to comments they previously made.
Here is the overarching nonverbal skill of inclusion: Claim Space. People sense how much space you are claiming and whether or not they are included in it.
Several years ago, looking out over a park from an office window, I played around with this concept. As each person passed by, I got a definite picture of how big their sense of space was. But how could I know whether I was right? One jogger came in to view on the far side of a hedge. Weirdly, he seemed to be claiming a space bubble that extended behind him. I couldn’t imagine why that would be the case until he jogged past a break in the hedge. He held a leash in one hand and a little dog trotted along, trailing behind. I was flabbergasted. He was moving and looking forward the whole time, and yet I knew exactly where his attention was.
From your own experience, you know you can tell the difference between someone scrolling on their phone whose space bubble has shrunk down to the ten inches between their eyes and the screen, oblivious the world around them, versus the person who, while scrolling, is still present in and aware of the room. Whether you’re giving a presentation to a huge audience, sharing a table with colleagues at an event, hanging out in your living room with friends, or hosting an online meeting—yes, even if you aren’t physically present in the same space—create a bubble big enough for all participants.
All of these skills simply come down to expanding your awareness beyond yourself and the person you are immediately interacting with. Do that first by claiming a big enough space to include everyone. Then follow through by using words and nonverbals that acknowledge everyone. It takes much less energy and no intention at all to shrink your space right down to one or two people. To be inclusive, you need a big enough presence to open up and invite others in.