Reading 'tells' is as important in the workplace as in poker

Joanne knew her boss was nervous, even though he didn’t say a word.

Peter instantly saw that his peer was defensive, even though most people in the room didn’t recognize anything different.

The reason Joanne and Peter were able to read the reactions of their colleagues is because they knew how to read their “tells.”  A tell is a gesture or mannerism that someone uses frequently and predictably. Most of the time, they don’t even know they are doing it…but if you know what to watch for, you will have an advantage in any conversation with them.

For example,
  • One of my female colleagues picks up a piece of hair and bends it in a specific way, whenever she is tense or uncomfortable.
  • Another colleague’s voice goes up to a high pitch when she is pushing her idea.
  • A client of mine laces his fingers together and puts them behind his head and spreads his elbows, whenever he feels challenged, or disagrees with something being said.
  • A friend of mine flexes her arm and hand in a certain way—almost like a spasm—when she is feels judged, or is trying to get others to agree with her.
  • A friend taps his toes or fingers when he is bored or restless.
  • Another friend’s ears get red when he is embarrassed or irritated.
  • A female colleague flushes pink on her neck and chest, and looks down, when she disagrees.
  • I pick my cuticles when I am impatient with someone.  

So, what is your tell? If you don’t know, ask the people who know you best. In fact, ask them to describe your other body language habits, while you’re at it. For example, many years ago I was in my boss’ office describing something important. He was reserved by nature and somewhat introverted, while I am an unabashed extrovert. I noticed his eyes and head were moving as I spoke. It dawned on me that he was watching my hands gesture wildly as I described the scenario! From then on, I tried to make it a point to hold my hands in my lap—and I assure you it wasn’t easy.

Another example of a body language habit comes from a colleague who tends to talk with his eyes closed when he is thinking about what he is saying. It goes on for prolonged periods and it feels odd to his companions. A different person looks away for long periods and doesn’t make eye contact. Someone else I know coughs (a short fake-sounding cough) whenever he reads something out loud (a hold-over, he says, from the embarrassment he suffered as a kid, when he had to read in front of the class).

There are other body language cues that come out when we are nervous or feel under a spotlight. For example, when I coach leaders in presentation skills, I often see defensive body positions. Because public speaking is stressful and makes many people feel exposed and vulnerable, they reflexively protect their most intimate body parts. Men will sometimes use the “fig leaf” pose, with hands in front of their body, while women will glue their elbows down along their sides and gesture in front of their chests. It’s also why so many people prefer standing behind a podium. Of course, they would never do this in a normal conversation and don’t even realize they are doing it in front of a group.

Have I sparked your curiosity? For the next few days, pay attention to not only what is being said but what their body is doing. Watch your boss, your spouse, your children and friends. They are the most important people in your life and they make wonderful subjects to study. Your skills will improve over time and will give you an advantage in your communications with them. It will trigger you to be more empathetic, help you to stop and probe for unspoken disagreement, and make you realize when to back off…all good moves that will help you be a savvier communicator.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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