Is anybody listening?

Updated on May 29, 2004 12:32 PM IST

Understanding the body language of colleagues and clients makes things work better for you. A few tips...

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PTI | ByAnil Bhatnagar

During a negotiation meeting with union leaders, a manager whispered to his colleague that an agreement was about to be reached and hence they need not relax their conditions any further. He was proved right within five minutes. A calculated guess that just turned out to be lucky?

No, the manager had seen one of the main union leaders unbuttoning his coat—a sign of openness, friendliness or willingness to reach an agreement.

The knowledge of nonverbal communication helps a manager understand the behaviour of others and thus manage his workforce effectively. It is also a useful and powerful tool for handling serious and sensitive situations tactfully. Nonverbal behaviour is more reliable than verbal expressions since it is the language of the subconscious and is therefore difficult to manipulate. Nonverbal inputs comprise 55 per cent of our listening; tonal and verbal inputs are 38 per cent and seven per cent, respectively.

Experienced managers are alert to notice harmony or dissent in gestures (nonverbal messages sent through body language) in a group. A group of workers once came to ask me for a facility which I knew was going to be misused. All of them were unanimous in pressing for it. When I observed them closely, however, I found that their leader had been sharing his gestures only with a handful of people; the rest were displaying a different set of gestures—a clear indication that the leader was forcing his decision on an unwilling majority.

I told them that their demand would be agreed to, provided the majority felt the same way. Their written opinions were collected in sealed envelopes. The result was obvious: my knowledge of nonverbal language had prevented me from conceding to an unjust demand.

One kinetic signal which is of tremendous importance for those in marketing and advertising is the dilation of pupils. The pupil size unconsciously increases when you see a thing of great interest—a sign to the marketing man that the product has been liked.

Counsellors, therapists and recruitment consultants can use kinesics to their advantage while conducting interviews. There are many giveaways: fall of face, change of facial expression (guilt); sucking thumb, biting nails, chewing or sucking the end of a pen or piece of paper (insecurity, stress, lack of confidence); looking away while talking (unsure); touching fingertips and forming an inverted 'V' (self-confidence); maintaining eye contact while talking (confidence).

During a meeting or presentation, you know that you are being listened to intently if the listener is keeping his left hand over the right one, with his palms down. However, if the right hand covers the left one, the person is probably disagreeing with what is being said and is waiting for an opportunity to interrupt. He may also pull his earlobe at the time he is just about to interrupt.
 
During my training programs I, often ask questions from uninterested participants to keep them alert and attentive. They tend to sit with crossed legs and arms, manifesting their mental withdrawal and resistance to what is being said. Unblinking eyes, looking fixedly, feet flat on floor, body tense but vertical are some gestures that show an inattentive listener who is trying to feign attention.

Rubbing behind the ear or touching (or rubbing) the nose gently with the index finger shows dislike, doubt, uncertainty or the inability to avoid or answer a question.

By nodding his head, the listener conveys that he is listening and encourages the speaker to go on. Rapid nods of the head, or a gentle, rhythmic tapping of the head or stomach or any other thing within his approach with the hand may mean that the listener wants the speaker to finish quickly. 

The stroking of chin or nose or pulling of beard, accompanied by an occasional narrowing down of eyes as if looking at a distance, may indicate that the person is evaluating in order to make a wise decision.

Gesture interpretation is, however, not meant to infer your intrinsic nature or personality. It should be used only to understand the behaviour, feelings or emotions of a person at a particular time. Also, gestures vary from culture to culture and may differ considerably. Gestures should be read in clusters of signals being received from various parts of the body.

Understanding the unsaid has helped me avoid making many mistakes, some serious, in both my professional and personal life. So if you want to know more about what people around you are really thinking, get ready to listen ...with your eyes.

(ABC of body language: Interpretation of certain body postures)

From Life Positive edition, September 1996 (For more, visitwww.lifepositive.com)

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