What To Do When You See “Negative” Body Language
“One of my colleagues hates me,” my client said as he sat down. “I don’t know what to do. Her behavior is so incredibly frustrating that it’s getting hard for me to focus on my actual job.”
“That is definitely a problem. How does she demonstrate that she hates you?” I asked.
One of the many reasons I love nonverbal communication is that you can actually SEE it. It’s observable in real life, in real time. Also, we are hardwired from birth to pick up on nonverbal cues. BUT we tend to be pretty lousy at interpreting those observable signals we’re hardwired to notice. We mess up all the time and assign thoughts and motives to people that are way off base. If we’re so good at noticing, how can we be so bad at translating?
As George Bernard Shaw put it, we tend to be “selfish little clots.” From the time we are born, we interpret everything everyone says and does as if it is about US. When we see a nonverbal signal, especially a negative one—a frown, a sigh, an impatient tapping of the foot—we assume the other thinks or feels negatively toward us.
Certainly, this can be the case. Your colleague or boss or client may be expressing disapproval, disappointment, or impatience in those gestures. A good communicator will pick up on those nonverbals without jumping to conclusions. When you start spinning stories about what others are thinking and feeling, you take yourself out of the present moment and into your head. You lose your ability to notice what’s happening currently, to adapt, and to connect with the person in real life.
Here are some things to try instead:
1. Seek clarity.
If possible, find out the root cause of the nonverbals you’re seeing.
Sometimes, you can do this directly. Years ago, I met with some colleagues to discuss financial arrangements for a business endeavor. During the meeting, I thoughtfully considered the numbers and asked for time before making a decision. Afterward, I received a text from one of my colleagues asking, “Are you upset or was that just Thinking Face?” She wasn’t sure how to interpret my furrowed brow, so she asked.
Other times, you may not want to address the nonverbal behavior directly, but you can address its message. You might say, “I get the impression you’re uncomfortable with this,” or “I’m sensing some resistance,” or even, “What do you think?”
Depending on the situation or relationship, you may not feel comfortable being direct at all. In those cases, if you’re observing questionable nonverbals, try adjusting your approach to see if that leads to a shift.
2. Remember you are not a mind reader.
Give up the fantasy of being a psychic and accept that you don’t actually know what’s going on in another person’s head. Some people do wear their thoughts and emotions more on their sleeves than others. Even so, what you see is only a teensy sliver of what’s actually going on—the personality and experiences and beliefs and sleep deprivation and caffeination levels and hormones and anxieties and everything else that contribute to behavior.
Don’t make it about YOU. It’s likely not about you. Everyone is just as much of a “selfish little clot” as you are, concerned with their own lives and thoughts. They aren’t nearly as concerned about you (positively or negatively) as you probably think. There’s freedom in that. Embrace it.
3. Be clear.
I will borrow this one from a 20-year-old self-help book: Be impeccable with your nonverbals. Okay, the original is “Be impeccable with your word.” The same wisdom applies to your nonverbal communication, too. Because you know others are prone to misinterpreting you, be as clean and clear and faultless in your nonverbal communication as possible.
You won’t be perfect, of course. I’m not either. After a recent presentation, an audience member mentioned, “I noticed your feet weren’t pointed straight forward when you were speaking. I’m curious why you did that, since it seemed at odds with what you were telling us to do.”
I laughed. “Thank you for pointing that out,” I said. “It was simply the remnants of my own lack of confidence. I’ll work on it!” I’m not 100% “impeccable” with my nonverbals either.
But my nonverbal communication is the only person’s I have control over. The more clean and clear I get it, the better my interactions will go. The same is true for you. Clear out the nonverbal static that detracts from your message. Don’t give others anything to misinterpret.
As my client and I discussed his coworker’s hateful behavior, we came up with all sorts of possible causes besides “She hates me.” Any or none of them may have been the truth. But once he realized it may not have been personal, communicating with her in the following days became smoother, less painful, and much more productive.
Getting angry or hurt over another person’s body language is a misuse of your nonverbal communication skills. Use them to promote clarity, connection, and collaboration.