Let’s Talk About What Your Body Language Is Telling Me

A post on the Harvard Business Review blog, titled, “Your Body Language Speaks For You In Meetings,” caught my eye immediately. Several years ago, I brought this very issue to the attention of one of our senior paralegals. The paralegal was a critical player on our team–well respected by everyone and for good reason. During meetings, she had a place at the table equal to the most senior partner present. If she doubted a particular strategy, you could bet that we’d go a different direction.

Being the oddball that I am, I was often the one offering an out-of-the-box idea. I held the paralegal in the highest regard, so it really hurt when she was disapproving or skeptical of my ideas. Finally, I decided to deal with the issue head on. Leaving the conference room after a meeting one day, I asked her why she was always so critical of my ideas.

She looked at me, shocked, “Huh?” I looked back, equally shocked. She really had no idea what I was talking about. I took a deep breath and said, “You never like my ideas. You always look so critical when I offer a suggestion.”

It was clear–very clear–that she had no idea that she had been communicating this message and certainly had not intended to do so. We had a quick talk about it and agreed that we’d pay more attention to the signals we were sending at future meetings.

At the next meeting, though, I was disappointed that my idea was met with the same familiar hostility as before. After the meeting, I called her aside and asked her, “What happened to our truce?” Again, she gave me that same shocked look. “I was totally receptive and positive! Didn’t you hear my comments?!”

As it turned out, I hadn’t. I hadn’t heard anything. It’s what I’d seen that had me so convinced she was not going to support my idea. I explained that, when I started to speak at the meeting, the paralegal had turned sideways in her chair, slung her arm over the back of it, and looked at me over the top rims of her reading glasses. As soon as she “got into position,” I would pretty much shut down.

It didn’t take long before we realized that our troubles were a result of the messages she had been sending unintentionally with her body language. So, being two reasonable adults in search of a solution to our miscommunication missteps, we did what anyone would do–we googled it. And here are some of the tips we found:

  • sit facing the table squarely, instead of turning to the side;
  • put both feet flat on the floor; and
  • keep your hands in view and in front of you.

At the next meeting, the paralegal sat down in a chair across the table, looked at me, and, slowly adjusted her hands on the tabletop, squared her shoulders towards me, and smiled a huge grin, telling me–without words–that she was applying the tips we found online. And that conscious effort, followed by the big smile, was all the body language I needed to get the message loud and clear–she wanted to support me and was signaling that she was darn sure going to try.

I can’t imagine my job without her support over these past many years. I am eternally thankful that she was so open to trying a different approach, despite not having any reason to, other than being a really good team player.

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