What are nonverbals? Or; Are your dinosaur scales showing?

There is a fine line between effective, strong leadership and embarrassing displays of dominance.

Our meeting was running on time; the interstate meeting my business associate and I had been asked to attend to discuss working with a high profile client of ours.

Within the first five minutes, there were signs that working with these people would be risking dropping our client into the jaws of an ancient reptile, the business crocodile.

With only cursory eye contact on introductions and shaking hands, small talk was almost non existent. Once in the meeting room our hosts thew their business cards on the table. The leader of the meeting chose a chair at a distance from the rest of the group, and extended himself back in his chair, crossing his outstretched legs at the ankles and broadening through his chest.

These collected elements are what we call the nonverbals of the meeting. Though each element is significant on its own, we look at, and respond to clusters of non-verbal information.

What are nonverbals?

Beyond ‘Body Language’

Nonverbals are everything we communicate that is not verbal. That goes from the building your meeting is in, to how you are greeted by the receptionist. The architecture and how people are dressed. The tone and pace with which people move and talk. This is what Joe Navarro in his book, Louder Than Words’, calls ‘curb-side appeal.’

  1. Tone of voice (paralinguistics) which communicate how we feel about what we are saying. This is exactly why there is so much room for misunderstandings in email and text messages.
  2. What you are wearing? One female manager I know wears a dark, matte shade of lipstick popular in the 1990s. Do you think this communicates an outlook that is up to date?
  3. The use of space and distance, in the nonverbal world, this is called proxemics. In our meeting, the choice our meeting partners made of the seating arrangement communicated their intention to be collaborative (one manager seated next to us) or combative (the other manager, who had also displayed a cluster of dominance displays, left a seat between himself and my partner.)

How do we become fossilised?

Crocodiles have been around for more than 55 million years….Often working within the same company or role for an extended period of time can lead us to being stagnant with our nonverbals. A way of being that seemed appropriate at the beginning of a career can be based on mentors and role models who were already behind the times. Our nonverbals are something people don’t feel comfortable giving us feedback on. It’s too personal. Unless I have been contracted to give someone feedback on their nonverbals, there is no way I would intrude on a person’s personal choices in their communication.

How can we fix it?

Outsource. Find someone who has put in thousands of hours research into what will help you be more up to date. That can be anything from books, magazines and online videos to personal consultations.

I have a one piece jumpsuit from the 1980s that would have looked very chic when it was made. The shoulder pads in themselves would have indicated up-to-date power, and the slashes of hot pink colour would have communicated an edginess, contrasting with the more sombre background beige. In 2014, I wear that jumpsuit to dress-up parties. Every time I wear it I get a laugh. When we stay in a time warp, everything from our wardrobe to our nonverbals can become a joke. We can’t expect our business behaviour to remain the same for twenty or even thirty years without appearing out of date, and out of touch.

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