Reading non verbal cues
Is the person you are speaking to understanding the subject? Are you going so slow that you are boring them to death? Did you stumble on an organizational landmine an inadvertently offend someone? Who in the room is actually making the decision? It may not be who you think. Is the customer ready to make a decision? All these are good questions to ask when you are presenting a solution, or educating a person or group on a technology. The secret is, you don’t need to ask. The person across the table is telling you. They are telling you through positioning of their body and their movements (commonly known as body language).
When you take into account cultural differences (which there are some distinct body language differences between cultures), a significant portion of communication is communicated non verbally.
One experiment I do when a new systems engineer (SE) joins the organization is to sit in as a coach in a customer meeting. I am there as a safety net while they position a product, or design a solution. After the meeting is concluded we get sit down and do a debriefing. Our focus however is not the technical accuracy of the solution, or how to further help the customer (there is a process of checks and balances for this however). The purpose of the debrief is to discuss what reactions people had to certain content, and specifically to ascertain whether the presenter picked up on these cues. If the cues were picked up, that is great. If not some simple tips and supplemental training can be recommended to help the engineer develop an awareness of these non verbal messages.
What are some common non verbal cues
One thing to get out of the way, is that no single cue can give a clear picture of a persons state (with the exception of flipping the bird). But if you combine multiple cues together you can usually get a good idea of what is going on mentally or emotionally with a person.
Closing off – The crossing of the arms in front of the body. This can indicate a few things. In general this can signal that the person is uncomfortable. You can confirm this by checking out their facial expressions. This sense of discomfort may be due to fear (afraid of public speaking ), or due to anger (you may have discussed a Cisco UCS solution when they want to go HP).
What to do – I find the best way to deal with this is to be very aware of when this posture occurred. If there person was closed off as they sat down, they may just be uncomfortable in the new surroundings or with new people. If the person closed off right after you made a statement however, it is best to pause an ask peoples thoughts on that statement and address the issue before moving on. If you don’t you run the risk of every thing you talk about afterward not sinking in.
Smiling – This is an easy one to pick up on. It however is commonly forgotten when YOU are the one presenting. A person who smiles and has a “bright” face is much more likely to be accepted into a positive discussion. I personally have to be acutely aware of this because my default “blank” face can be quite stern. (think Marine Drill Instructor before his coffee).
What to do – Before a meeting or presentation I do facial stretches. These are extreme yawning movements and open up your face. The result is that you don’t unintentionally make anyone uncomfortable due to a stern look.
Leaning back with the hands in back of the head – You have just found the Alpha Male (or Alpha Geek if you are in Silicon Valley). This person is demonstrating his superiority. The most common situation is that this is the boss. If this is not the boss this may be a technical decision maker. Be prepared to field some pointed questions about esoteric items as you establish credibility with this person.
What to do – Be aware that if you challenge this persons authority or knowledge you may just derail the meeting. Getting in a battle of wills trying to see who is the Alpha will go no where. Establish credibility in a non threatening way. Be open and inclusive in your discussions paying special notice to this persons ideas. Ideally take one of their ideas and statements and use that as a keystone for demonstrating your idea or making your point. If you can pull that off not only will you have diffused the threat of derailing the meeting you will have created an advocate in the organization.
These were just four common non verbal cues. To cover all of them would take a book. Luckily there are many books on this subject.
Elbow on the table with the thumb and forefinger split supporting the chin – This is a good one. This person is interested and engaged. If they are maintaining eye contact you are communicating well. If their eyes go off to the side or up they ma be contemplating your message.
What to do – If their eyes are straight ahead keep doing what you are doing. The audience is interested and engaged and this is exactly where you need to be. Stay aware of this as it is a great sanity check that you are on track. If the eyes move up and behind though you may want to slow things down with some pauses to allow this person to complete their thought. They may have an important question to ask and you don’t want to miss the opportunity to answer it. In any case if they are thinking they are not listening to new content so doing a quick comprehension check is a good thing.
Pulling it all together
As engineers, many of us focus on providing a technical accurate and detailed solutions. This alone is not always sufficient to position a specific solution. By becoming aware of non verbal communications from your audience you will become aware of organizational dynamics, as well as become better at recognizing whether you are on target for the technical level of your audience members.
Want to learn more?
The best book I have read on non verbal communication is called -
The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease.
This covers both the high level body language cues as well as detailing some very minute yet important positioning a posturing details. I would say this book is a must read if you are going to operate in any sales engineering organization.