The basics of body language


Look for the disconnect between your veterinary colleagues words and their nonverbal communication to find out when its time to ask for more information.

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The majority of conflicts I work to resolve in my role in management involve interpreting subtle body language that has upset another employee. The problem is, employees know when a behavior has upset them, but labeling and understanding that behavior can be challenging. From there, communicating to their coworker that the behavior has upset them can be even more difficult if they can't explain what happened. This lack of awareness also contributes to employees themselves being responsible for upsetting others with their nonverbal behavior-whether it be an eye roll, not engaging in office banter or slumping in their chair all day.

This nonverbal communication can take many forms in body gestures, voice, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, distance when speaking and even clothing. And when we communicate with coworkers, we seek a certain response: a “yes” to helping out on a crazy day or an “I understand” when you have a family outing and need to leave early. The key to getting the response we desire in these situations is to consider how we come across beyond our words. Here are some things to watch for in your body language and that of others.

Body language to look for

> Eye contact. Is the individual making eye contact at all? If not, they may be intimidated or disinterested. Lack of eye contact can also signal dishonesty. Constant, intense eye contact can be off-putting to the audience, while intermittent eye contact can be a perfect way to communicate listening and understanding.

> Facial expressions. These cause some of the most common problems related to nonverbal communication. We're even sensitive to “microexpressions” that can occur within 1/15th of a second. When trying to describe negative behaviors to a coworker, it helps to break down the expressions by the positioning of their eyebrows, eyes and lips. Are they wrinkling their forehead with their eyebrows narrowed? Are their eyes open and attentive, squinting, or communicating surprise? Are their lips pressed firmly together? For more on facial expressions and helpful pictorials, check out this piece on the Science of People website.

> Pseudo-verbal communication. I refer to people who do this as the “mumblers.” They're technically talking, but they do so under their breath, and others can barely understand what's being said. This is usually interpreted as anger or frustration, but it could also shyness or fear.

> Posture. When individuals have a relaxed demeanor-shoulders down, hands by their side or in their lap (arms not crossed)-they're much more approachable during a conversation. However, if they appear rigid, with raised shoulders or crossed arms, you interpret that as anger or disinterestedness in the conversation.


Ways you might interpret body language

Once you're mindful of behaviors and mannerisms to look for, it's important to pay attention to inconsistencies between what's being said and the nonverbal communication being displayed. Ideally, if someone is being honest in their feelings, their nonverbal communication should match their message. If a person is telling you one thing, but the body language is saying something else, it can be a clue to dig further into the conversation with more open-ended questions to see whether the individual will reveal more of what they're truly trying to express. A few examples:

> “Help me with your reaction to what I just said.”

> “What are your thoughts?”

> “Can you help me understand that a little better?”

It's helpful to trust your instincts during exchanges with coworkers. More than likely if you feel someone isn't being honest, there's likely a mismatch between verbal and nonverbal communication.

Ways to present positive nonverbal communication

Stress plays a huge role in how we present ourselves and how we interpret the actions of others. It's important to work on managing your stress levels on a day-to-day basis. Taking a moment to calm down before broaching a difficult topic with a coworker and learning how you can recharge are both helpful. You may benefit from a time out with a meditation app on your phone, a walk around the hospital or a few deep breaths. When you're relaxed, this comes across in your body language, and you'll be better able to verbally communicate your concerns and read others more accurately.

Does all this sound awkward or difficult? Developing emotional awareness takes time and practice. Emotional awareness means being able to accurately read others and being able to discuss concerns with a multitude of descriptors (people aren't just “angry” or “sad” when there's a problem). Having the ability to discuss others' emotions and actions appropriately also lends itself to demonstrating empathy, which creates trust and nurtures work relationships.

Ori Scislowicz, aPHR, is a team leader LVT at CVCA: Cardiac Care for Pets in Richmond, Virginia.

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