What’d You Just Say?!

Last night, I was listening to American Public Media’s “Marketplace” radio show. One of the featured guests was Carol Kinsey Goman, a Berkeley-based psychologist and “change-management” consultant — the kind that drops into companies to teach executives how to play nice. Goman’s work largely centers on the unspoken cues that people give one another. In fact, she recently published a book on the topic, The NonVerbal Advantage. Goman quickly determined, for example, that the host of “Marketplace,” Kai Ryssdal, unwittingly signals his disinterest in a conversation by twirling a pen in his hands. (Ryssdal had invited her to spend the morning at Marketplace’s offices.)

To find out more about how we give ourselves away, I just reached out to Goman, who has worked with Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and Prudential Financial, among many other financial institutions in the past. She agreed to give PEHub readers some pointers.

First, what inspired the book?

I was doing a lot of change-management consulting, and I found that a lot of the problems of the executives I was coaching were nonverbal. For instance, I was brought in because one particular manager was somehow offending the women on his team. His female staff couldn’t articulate why, but they maintained that he wasn’t appreciative of them. Then I saw why. In meetings, when a man talked, he leaned toward him; when a woman talked, he leaned back, and that’s a signal that you don’t find someone’s remarks valuable or likable or interesting.

What are some common no-nos?

Some people have that nervous habit of putting their hands in their pockets. But what people pick up on is that there is something to hide. It benefits you to keep your hands out, even to show your palms. Similarly, people cross their arms because they’re more comfortable, but it comes across as a sign of resistance.

Can people really change their body posture, based on that information?

Well, you don’t want someone to say something they don’t believe in. Their body language will stark to leak cues. But there are just “habits” that you can break when your body isn’t necessarily supporting a message you mean to convey.

Some in the worlds of buyouts and venture capital might be accused of arrogance. So our readers know what not to do in a boardroom, how may they be unwittingly communicating disdain?

Obviously looking down their nose. That’s a big one. Then there’s the eyebrow raise, like, “Is this even pertinent?” Eye rolls are pretty commonplace, too. Also interesting: I’ve worked with a lot of alpha males, and what they’ll often do is literally encroach on each other’s territory, which is very much a display of dominance. At a lunch meeting, you might move the salt and pepper closer to someone to encroach on their territory. In the boardroom, you take up as much room as possible, sit back, put your arms out, even spread out your papers.

What about who sits where around a table during a meeting?

That absolutely sends a message. Sitting exactly opposite someone is a cue that says, I’m confrontational. If you think of the way divorce lawyers sit with their clients in meetings, they’re directly across from each other. Sitting at the head of the table signals that you want everyone to know you’re in charge. Sitting in the middle of a table is a way to signal that you value everyone’s input. One-on-one, the best way to conduct a meeting with someone is to be at right angle.

What are some facial expressions to watch for, and what do they mean?

If someone touches their lips or nose when they’re telling you something, that’s a very big cue that they’re lying. If someone touches their nose or covers it while you’re talking, it means they’re skeptical of what you’ve said. If someone rubs that back of their neck after you’ve said something, it almost always means that they have a concern relating to what you’ve said that they aren’t addressing.

Chin groping is another cue. It’s a real sign of deliberation, so you want to see what happens right after that. If the person leans back or hides their hands, they haven’t bought your deal. If they nod or smile or lean forward, they’ve made a decision to buy what you’re selling.

How do most people telegraph boredom? Quick look at the Blackberry?

Or watch, or they might simply glance at the door. They will take their eyes off you. Checking your Blackberry is one way of doing it, but basically, the minute that someone who’s had good eye contact breaks it, they want to be doing other things

Aside from the face, what body part best gives away what emotions someone is experiencing?

Feet! Feet are the least rehearsed part of the body, so even if you have your game face on and have adjusted your body posture to convey confidence, your feet will give you away. They’ll point in direction where you want to head — often at the door — or toward the person in the meeting who you prefer. When someone crosses his legs, his top leg and foot will point at a person with whom he agrees.

Feet also bounce if you’re nervous, ankles cross and pull back when you feel like they aren’t part of the group, and toes point up when you’re feeling happy and confident. Really, if you want to know what’s going on in a meeting, just drop your pen and look under the table.