You Don't Always Get What You See

You Don’t Always Get What You See

That’s not what I said!” “You weren’t paying attention!” “Were you even in that meeting?

Miscommunication. It happens to all of us. A seemingly “clear” message is lost in translation, resulting in frustration, hurt feelings, mistrust, and lost productivity. Sound familiar?

Body Language is Powerful

We tend to focus on the words we speak. We thoughtfully craft our message, selecting each word with care while giving little thought—if any—to our nonverbal communication. However, several researchers have concluded that between 55-65% of communication occurs nonverbally. It turns out that nonverbal messages matter—a lot!

Over 800 nonverbal messages are sent in a 30-minute conversation between two people . These powerful cues are often received and analyzed unconsciously. Our bodies reveal our emotions through constant, subtle gestures (whether we like it or not), and trust is undermined when our words and nonverbal messages do not align.

Body language can sabotage the most artfully crafted words. For example, a recent study analyzed the body language of leaders during a positive speech. In the study, a leader of an organization delivered a positive verbal message while using either positive, defensive, or neutral hand gestures.

Positive Hand Gestures:
1. Community hands: The position of the hands show the palm face up or vertical to the ground.
2. Humility hands: Hands are clasped in front of the person at waist level.
3. Steepling hands: Hands form a steeple with fingertips touching.

Defensive Hand Gestures:
1. Hands in pockets: One or both hands are in the leader’s pants pockets.
2. Crossed arms: One or both arms are crossed over the chest.
3. Hands behind back: Hands are clasped behind the back.

The leader used the same words in each speech—only the hand gestures changed. Remarkably, the positive hand gestures were significantly more effective in creating an emotional connection with the leader. Actions spoke louder than words!

Reading Body Language is Complicated

Understanding body language is critical to success. Unfortunately, reading body language is not as easy as it seems. We are not born with the ability to read these nonverbal cues; it is a learned skill that must be practiced. With so little face-to-face communication, our confidence in reading body language surpasses our accuracy. We are quicker to incorrectly interpret other’s nonverbal messages and we are not great at monitoring our own body language—a recipe for miscommunication!

For example, do you think people with “shifty eyes” are lying? Think again! People who are lying look the other person in the eye every bit as much as truthful people. To tell if someone is lying you must evaluate the context of their body language and look for discrepancies, such as between a person’s tone of voice and their gestures. In fact, except for obvious gestures, most body language does not have a specific meaning apart from its context.

Consider these examples:


In a meeting, Meghan neglects to make eye contact. She keeps her arms folded and occasionally gives a half smile. She appears resistant to the idea that you are pitching. To persuade her, you continue to make your case with greater intensity. With no signs of buy-in, you dismiss her as a poor team player without asking for her thoughts on the pitch. Later, you tell Meghan’s supervisor that she was not onboard with the project, which negatively impacts her performance review.

Meghan was impressed by your pitch and would have worked tirelessly on the project. She was cold during the meeting and contemplating the research she could do to assist in executing the project. She was also distracted by a difficult situation that took place earlier that day.


Mark and Sheryl shake hands as they greet each other with smiles and friendly “hellos.” Sheryl is taken back by Mark’s limp handshake, which is not the handshake she expects from someone in Mark’s position. Sheryl perceives Mark to be weak, uninteresting, and lacking confidence. She quickly moves on to greet others in the room and gives little thought to connecting with Mark again.

Sheryl does not know that Mark recently underwent surgery on his wrist and is unable to firmly shake hands. Mark is a confident, well-connected, and highly accomplished professional who could have opened many doors for Sheryl.


For the past few months, Susan has enjoyed having lunch with a group of co-workers. As a newcomer to the group, she quietly listens and rarely smiles. Her co-workers wonder why she bothers to join them. She does not engage in conversation and always appears angry or bored. It is obvious that she does not like them.

Susan truly enjoys her colleagues and looks forward to their lunches. She listens carefully to learn more about her new acquaintances. She does not realize that her resting face appears unfriendly and uninterested. Susan’s co-workers would love her if they got to know her.

Pause and Ask Questions

Small gestures convey huge messages. You think no one will notice the spontaneous eye roll or that long sigh, but they do! Becoming self-aware is the first step to improving your nonverbal communication skills. What gestures do you make on a regular basis? Most of us are unaware that we lack eye contact, have a frequent facial twitch, or fidget unless it is brought to our attention.

To avoid misunderstanding others, give people your full attention and ask clarifying questions. Step back and ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making? Could those assumptions be incorrect? What else could be true?” Once we form a belief about another person, it is very difficult for our brain to consider other possibilities. Our brain is hardwired to seek and find additional “proof” to back up our initial belief. To fight this implicit bias, we must consciously pause to consider that we could be incorrect—that we may not be seeing or hearing others clearly.

Your body language is always saying something about you. Take control of your nonverbal communication. If you do not know where to begin, we can help! Contact us at (206) 510-5357 or at to learn how we can partner with you.

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