Reading Body Language—A Neglected Leadership Skill

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Article Summary: 

Reading body language is an underutilized skill for most of us. Body language and tone of voice are important communication conduits.

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There’s a leadership capability we all have that is seriously underutilized—observing and reading body language. By reading what other people are communicating through their body language, we can significantly upgrade our leadership skills.

 

Be an Observer

Bob realized the importance of this while conducting a leadership workshop. An exercise involved about ten volunteers who agreed to be put into a pressure-filled situation. They first read a short scenario where each was given a role to play in a tense factory conflict between management and workers.

Unknown to these volunteers, an observer was carefully watching each of them and noting their behavior as Bob escalated the tension in the exercise. Each observer then reported in great and surprising detail what body language their volunteers exhibited during the exercise.

The results were fascinating. Someone would start to speak and then get interrupted. They might then shut down, with eyes downcast and arms folded, or lean forward, escalating their tone while gesturing to regain control. A worker might take a hostile posture and facial expression, or a submissive one.

When asked to watch closely, the observers had a keen and accurate understanding of the body language in front of them and what it meant.

Yet, most of us, as we sit in meetings or engage in discussions, are not paying attention to the meaning of the body language right in front of us. Too often, we’re wrapped up in what we want to say next or how we’re feeling about things. We miss much of what’s happening before us.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.

 

More Important than Many Think

Our friend and colleague, Bob Whipple, has made a detailed study of body language for more than 40 years. His leadership workshops spend time on body language because it builds or erodes trust. Being trusted is essential to being a good leader. He reports that tone of voice and body language are more important than many people think in communication.

 

What most people don’t realize is that the vast majority of signals we send to other people with our body language are completely subconscious.” -Bob Whipple

 

Body Language Treasure Chest

Bob Whipple has published 100 articles about body language. Among the topics covered are facial expressions, arms, gestures, eye contact, blinking rate, sitting positions, head tilts, false signals, faking emotions, lying, and much more. It’s a treasure chest of wisdom and tools. (Take a look at the index to his series.)

Reading body language is a learned skill. You can practice it in every meeting and communication exchange. Your leadership acumen will improve by observing your colleagues’ body language.

 

Summary

Reading body language is an underutilized skill for most of us. Body language and tone of voice are important communication conduits. You can build trust and enhance your leadership skills by paying close attention to body language.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you reading the body language of people around you?
  2. Might you enhance your leadership skills by being more aware of body language and its meaning?
  3. Are you willing to begin observing body language to enhance this practice?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Quotations on Body Language

  • “Body language and tone of voice—not words—are our most powerful assessment tools.” -Christopher Voss, businessman and author
  • “Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking.” -Peter Guber, author
  • “I was really interested in observing people. From a young age, I wouldn’t listen to what an adult was saying. I was obsessed with other people’s body language.” -Alex Sharp, English actor

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Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Best Articles or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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2 thoughts on “Reading Body Language—A Neglected Leadership Skill”

  1. Over the years, I’ve seen (and used) this in real life. And so very often, these body language indicators are not the subtle sigons that we might assume: instead, they can often be general and unambiguous body movements that at first I found difficult to imagine that the person wasn’t aware that they were doing.

    (One manager I often had to negotiate with in a labour representative role was perplexed when he realised I could always well when he was being economical with the truth. His body language gave him away in unmissable ways, but he was not aware of this.) (And I never let on.)

    More recently, I served on a jury in a criminal case and drew great insights into the veracity of the defendant’s story from his body language when he was challenged on aspects of his alibi that he had not previously considered or prepared for. I inferred that his account was untrue, and so it turned out. My knowledge of body language was the clincher for me in deciding the accused’s guilt or innocence.

    Reply

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