Body Language 73 Coy

March 27, 2020

How can you tell if another person is being coy? In this article I will give some tips to recognize the body language gestures associated with being coy and give some ideas to deal with the situation.

I will start with being coy in a business setting and then cover the same topic from a social point of view. The former usually involves someone being somewhat evasive while being coy in a social setting runs the gamut between deception all the way to overt flirtation.

What is being coy?

The definition of coy is “pretending to be shy or modest.” Another definition from Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary is..”marked by cute coquettish or artful playfulness.” A third perspective of being coy includes a reluctance to make a commitment or give details about something regarded as sensitive.

Eyebrows

When a person is being coy, he will usually have one eyebrow noticeably raised. You do not see both eyebrows raised, because that gesture would normally be associated with the emotion of surprise or even shock.

The clandestine look is what gives the gesture the appearance of some mystery. That can be what creates the playfulness of the gesture. The uncertainty of what he is thinking enhances the effect.

Eyes

A coy person will usually be looking sideways. He does not look up or down, but the eyes are noticeably looking to the side. It is an evasive kind of movement, like he is making an effort to hide something.

He rarely will make direct eye contact when being coy because that would reduce the mystery effect.

Cheeks

When a person is being coy, you usually see only one cheek as he will turn his head and not look at you straight on. He may also have a tilted head to accentuate the expression.

Mouth

There is often a slight pulling back of the one cheek in an effort to make a mysterious smile. Alternatively, the mouth can also form a sober frown, as in the picture.

Chin

Often the chin is lowered a bit as if to hide something. It would be unusual to see a coy person with his head held high. Part of the secret look is to lower the chin.

In a Business Setting

Being coy in a business setting means that there is something a person wants to express but prefers to only hint at until the other person begins to get a message. It can also mean reluctance to give information the other person wants.

The desired outcome is rarely sexual, as in social expressions of being coy. Many of the body language signals will be the same, as is shown in the picture above of a male being coy in a work setting.

Perhaps he knows something, but he does not trust the other person enough to reveal it. Perhaps he is playing some kind of game where he wants to stall for time for some reason. This is not necessarily negative, since a person can have valid reasons for keeping something private.

One approach to break the tension is to ask the person if he is uncomfortable at the moment. If he agrees, then you have the opportunity to make open ended questions in an attempt to find out the root cause of the discomfort.

Being coy is also used in marketing when an organization wants to build anticipation for a new product but is not quite ready for the grand announcement.

The art of being coy is often seen in political situations where a candidate is not ready to announce his or her true intentions. This application often comes across as artful dodging, which tends to lower trust because people recognize they are not getting the full truth.

Being coy in a social setting

The most well-known examples of being coy occur in a social setting, rather than a business or political setting, as in the attached picture.

The gestures are usually intended to be provocative and involve another person. People would not make these movements if they were alone.

The smile may be slightly pulled to the side reminiscent of the Mona Lisa look. The half-smile is an indication of potential pleasure. She may also exhibit pursed lips as if in a mock kissing gesture.

Conclusion

When a person (male or female) is being coy, you have to recognize that there is some kind of agenda going on. Be careful to not misinterpret the coyness as attraction. There could be a number of things going on. The best advice is to remain unsure until you have other indications for why the person is making these gestures.

Look for the opportunity for some dialog. Observe more and try to ask open ended questions for more data. If the person begins to open up, then you can improve the accuracy of your understanding and not make unwarranted assumptions.


This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”



Body Language 72 Exasperation or Rage

March 20, 2020

When someone is completely exasperated or enraged, it is usually easy to tell. The body language gestures are rather specific and well known.

Rage is an extreme form of anger that has a special category because the person experiencing it nearly loses all control of her body. The extreme gestures of exasperation or rage are usually short lived and give way to more typical expressions of anger.

Here are a few things to look out for when dealing with an exasperated person.

Puffed out Cheeks

The genesis of this gesture is an exhale but with a closed mouth so the cheeks puff out. Of course, the steam coming out of her ears is imagined, but the look is unmistakable. This person is really upset.

Followed by open mouth with verbal gasp

The mouth opens and the person shows her teeth as she either screams or just gasps. The connotation here is that whatever happened to her is so extreme that she cannot imaging how to contain her anger and finds it hard to find adequate words to describe the situation rationally.

Hand gestures

With a person who is exasperated, the hands are usually involved in the body language. Usually you will see both hands extended in front of the sternum with fingers rigidly curved as if the person is holding two invisible grapefruits. This symbolic gesture is a visual signal that the exasperated person needs to be restrained so as to not strangle the person causing her the angst.

Hands to face

The secondary gesture may also include hands to the face. The person would put both hands to her cheeks as she tries to restrain herself. Another form would have the person putting her hands on the top of her forehead as if she is trying to keep her skull from exploding due to the extreme pressure.

Eyes, eyebrows, and neck

The most common gesture with the eyes and eyebrows is a furrowing of the brows to reflect anger.

Another common gesture is a complete wide-eyed show of rage. A person who is totally enraged may have bulging eyes that look like they are about to pop out of the face.

You may also see obvious bulging ligaments in the neck, which is a common occurrence with rage.

An exasperated person will often roll her eyes in disbelief. It is like she is saying “How can you be so stupid?”

Pointing

If the object of her anger is right there, you may see pointing with the index finger or a rigid vertical hand as she starts to verbalize what is upsetting her so much.

What to do when another person shows exasperation

People at this extreme need space to come to grips with what is going on inside. They need to feel heard, even if that cannot say a word. They often need time before they can speak. They are also looking for some form of response, but you need to be careful how you respond.

The first thing to do is not escalate the situation by mirroring the body language of the person expressing rage. Remain calm and let the other person blow off the initial steam without any comment. In this moment, it is so tempting to fight back, but that almost always makes things worse.

Think about being kind and caring at this moment. Don’t brush aside the whole thing, but also try to not appear condescending. Do not belittle her for losing control. Let the enraged person have her full say and consider carefully what response would de-escalate the situation.

By remaining calm, you take the fuel away from the anger of the exasperated person, but recognize that in some circumstances remaining calm can further enrage the person, so you need to read the body language accurately to know how to respond. It may be helpful to allow a cooling off period before trying to make a difference.

Once the person has regained composure, ask open ended questions to draw her out. Once she has expressed the root cause of the problem, then she may be able to hear and consider some ideas for how to move forward.

I think it helps to acknowledge the other person’s situation and show as much empathy as you can, once you are convinced the person is ready for dialog. If the situation were reversed, you might have had a similar reaction. By this method you can talk the other person down to earth and begin a constructive conversation of how to address the problem in a mature and rational way.

These actions will form a basis to start rebuilding trust with the other person. It may be a long way back to full trust, but you have to start with the proper baby steps.

Things to avoid doing

Do not go on the defensive or walk out. Do not attack or blame the person experiencing exasperation or rage. Refrain from snide remarks or making character assassinations.

Do not block the other person from expressing herself. Do not bully her into talking if she is not yet ready to talk. Don’t crowd the person; give her space. Refrain from dismissing the person.

The other side of the equation

The other side is what is going on inside the person who is witnessing the rage of another person. Someone expressing rage may be a trigger to those who have been abused in prior situations with someone else, like a parent or abusive spouse. A set of coping mechanisms may kick in as needed.

For example, the person may completely withdraw as a means of physical protection or experience genuine terror. If she was the potential trigger for the rage she is seeing, then strong feelings of guilt or shame may surface.

Both parties must use good judgment to de-escalate the situation and regain control. Once the situation has stopped boiling over, it is a good idea to debrief the flare up to identify things to do in the future that will prevent a recurrence. If done with sensitivity and kindness, the ugly incident may become the foundation for building higher trust between the individuals involved.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 71 Guilt

March 12, 2020

The body language associated with the emotion of guilt makes an interesting study.

In his wonderful program on Advanced Body Language, Bill Acheson of the University of Pittsburgh has a humorous section relative to guilt. Let me start by relating the way he describes it, then give some of my own observations.

Bill’s research has uncovered that out of the ten most common emotions, there is only one emotion that is conveyed more accurately by men than women. That emotion is guilt. With tongue in cheek before an audience made up of more women than men, he joked, “It turns out that women are so busy creating it, they are not getting the practice time.”

To go along with Bill’s research, I will be using the male pronoun for the remainder of this article. I do believe it is possible for women to convey guilt, though perhaps not as easily or frequently as men, but women can and do assume any of the body gestures in this article as well.

Just for fun, try to assume a facial gesture that conveys guilt. If you are like me, you will find it more difficult than trying to project other emotions, like sadness, happiness, fear, shock, love, etc.

Guilt is a little more elusive. Let’s go into how to show guilt and how to decode it when others try to hide that emotion.

Blank stare and looking down

Generally, for a man experiencing guilt, his eyes are looking down and there is a kind of far-away look in his eyes. He is perhaps trying to cover up the facts or just does not want to face the awful truth of what he did.

In the picture above, notice the blank stare on the face of Lance Armstrong, who was caught doping and disgraced as a world class cyclist. I have not found a picture that reflects guilt better than that one.

Anxiety

When experiencing guilt, we are highly anxious. That may manifest itself in all kinds of body language cues.

In the photo, the finger in the collar is a classic form of anxiety. The literal meaning is trying to loosen the collar to get in more oxygen.

Another signal of anxiety is the wringing of hands. The person is fretting because he has to admit to something that is unpleasant.

Another gesture you might see with guilt is biting of the finger nails. This is also a sign the person is experiencing anxiety.

Holding the head

Often a person feeling guilt will instinctively hold his head with one or even both hands. The hands often are covering the eyes, because he would rather not see other people while feeling guilt.

The posture here is similar to a “woe is me” type of feeling. It is like the person is trying to ask “What have I done?”

Shaking the head from side to side

This is another form of denial. The person is scolding himself for whatever he did and shaking his head as if to say, “How could I have been so stupid?”

Part of the head shaking routine may be a decoy to deflect attention away from the thing that was done. If the person shows enough remorse, perhaps other people will cut him some slack.

Closing eyes

This is an attempt to hide in plain sight. If he cannot see out, then he can play incognito for a while and maybe figure out how to change the subject.

Summary

The gestures for expressing guilt are numerous, and it also matters what caused the guilt. An empty cookie jar would be a mild form of guilt, whereas a larceny or extramarital affair would be major and have lasting consequences.

Whenever guilt is being experienced, a loss of trust is happening as well. Since it takes a lot of effort to rebuild lost trust, it is no wonder that people try to avoid guilt if they can.

You can help a person who is feeling guilty by gently trying to get the person to talk. Verbalizing the issue is one way to begin the healing process. Just recognize that sometimes the guilty party does not want to discuss the issue yet. You need to pick your timing and approach carefully.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Body Language 70 Talking With Your Hands

March 5, 2020

Most of us make hand gestures while we are talking. The vast majority of the time when we talk using our hands for emphasis, we are unaware we are even doing it. The hand movements are just a natural way to assist us in communicating meaning.

This brief article examines the phenomenon of hand gestures while talking and suggests some guidelines that may be helpful for your professional and personal life.

The major variable in hand gestures to emphasize verbal communication is the amount that is done. Some people have almost no hand animation, regardless of the topic, and other people gesture practically for every syllable of every word. That frequency can get tedious for the listener very quickly.

An extensive study was reported in HuffPost where people studied thousands of Ted Talks and counted the number of hand gestures in the standard 18 minute length. They found that the most popular speakers made an average of 465 gestures in their talks while the least popular speakers averaged less than half that number.

This research indicates that giving 2-3 hand gestures for the average sentence helps listeners stay interested in the subject. But if we have 10-15 gestures in an average sentence, that constitutes an overload situation. People will eventually tend to tune out.

If you want to view the frequency of hand gestures and count for yourself, just listen to a political debate. Since the stakes are high and the participants are vying for the most attention, the gestures are usually more frequent. The gestures get more frequent as the level of tension increases. Also, since debates are usually done before a large audience, that also encourages large hand gestures to animate the points being made.

Hand gestures enhance story-telling, because they make the subject come alive more than just the plain words would do. Suppose you are describing the difference between a huge military vessel and a tiny fishing boat. If you hold your hands out wide apart for the former and just use your thumb and first finger to illustrate the smaller boat, people will grasp the meaning easier. Experienced and professional story tellers use their entire body to emphasize their points rather than just their hands.

Some people are clumsy with hand gestures and do not have a congruent presentation. Suppose you were using words that describe a swan floating gracefully in the water, but your hand gesture was of a chopping motion with a vertical hand. The meaning would be difficult to interpret. Some people are frequently not congruent with words and gestures, and it ultimately leads to a lowering of trust just the same as if the facial expressions are not consistent with the words.

Gestures originate in the Broca’s area of the brain located on the left side of the brain and part of the frontal lobe. We also use this area of the brain to decode the gestures of others. If a person has suffered a brain injury, it may be more difficult to give consistent signals or to understand the signals of others. If you see someone who frequently misuses gestures or often takes things the wrong way, that person may have suffered a brain injury from a fall or a crushing hit in football.

Another aspect of gesturing while talking is to be alert for the imaginary box that is bounded on the sides by your shoulders, on top by your chin, and on the bottom by your belt line. If the majority of your gestures are inside the box, then they will not be viewed as “over the top,” On the other hand, if you are prone to fling your arms out to the maximum length as you communicate, people will think you are an “out there” kind of personality.

One person who has a habit of flinging her arms to the maximum extent is Elizabeth Warren. If you view her in a debate situation, you will see a good example of extreme gesturing. That habit is neither good nor bad; it is just her way of communicating. If most people used that much emphasis for key points, it would become a much more animated world.

You also need to take into consideration the relative size of the other person when you talk using gestures. If a large imposing person uses wide gestures when addressing a much shorter person or a child, the result can be highly intimidating for the shorter person, and it may result in a lowering of trust.

Since most of the time you are not consciously aware of your gestures, it would be a good idea to pay attention to your pattern in different circumstances. How many gestures do you use when you have an argument with your kids? How many do you use when you are describing a particularly bad storm? How many do you use when trying to communicate information with people at work?

In this regard, professional speakers have an advantage. They frequently have recordings of their talks, so they can gauge the level of gesturing they use and moderate it as appropriate to become more polished.

You can benefit just by paying attention to your hands as you monitor your communication effectiveness more consciously. It will allow you to improve your connectivity with people and raise the level of trust you are able to achieve with them.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”


Leadership Barometer 39 Stop Enabling Problem Employees

February 23, 2020

In any organization, there are situations where supervisors accommodate problem employees rather than confront them. Ignoring wrong actions models a laissez faire attitude on problem solving and enforcing rules.

It also enables the perpetrator to continue the wrong behavior. In a typical scenario, the problem festers under the surface for months or even years.

Ultimately escalation of the issue reaches a tipping point when something simply must be done. By this time, the problems are so horrendous they are many times more difficult to tackle.

A common example is when workers stretch break times from the standard 20 minutes to more than 30 minutes actually sitting in the break room.

The total duration is more like 45 minutes from the time work stops until it resumes. The supervisor does not want to appear to be a “by the book” manager, so the problem is ignored every day.

When things get too far out of control, the unfortunate supervisor is forced to play the bad guy, and everyone suffers a major loss in morale and trust.

I once worked in a unit where one person suffered from acute alcoholism. His abusive behavior was enabled because his supervisor did not dare confront him. The excuse was that his process knowledge was so important to the organization that he could not be fired.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. When they called him in to confront the facts, he had been out of control for 15 years. His reaction to the manager was, “What took you guys so long?”

Following months of treatment, he became sober and was able to go on with his life as a positive contributor. Unfortunately, he was old enough by that time to retire; the organization had acted too late to gain much benefit from his recovery. The problem was clear, yet for years nothing was done.

In every organization, there are situations like this (not just health issues – tardiness, too many smoke breaks, or abusing the internet are typical examples). Leaders often ignore the problem, hoping it will go away or fearing that the cure will be worse than the disease.

The advice here is to remember the comment made by my friend, “What took you guys so long?” and intervene when the problems are less acute and the damage is minor. In his case, that would have been a blessing; the man died a few months after retiring.

Taking strong action requires courage that many leaders simply do not have. They rationalize the situation with logic like:

• Maybe the problem will correct itself if I just leave it alone.
• Perhaps I will be moved sometime soon, and the next person can deal with this.
• Confronting the issue would be so traumatic that it would do more harm than good.
• We have already found viable workaround measures, so why rock the boat now?
• We have bigger problems than this. Exposing this situation would be a distraction from our critical work.

The real dilemma is knowing the exact moment to intervene and how to do it in a way that preserves trust with the individual and the group.

Once you let someone get away with a violation, it becomes harder to enforce a rule the next time. You also run the risk of appearing to play favorites when you try to clamp down on other individuals.

The art of supervision is knowing how to make judgments that people interpret as fair, equitable, and sensitive. The best time to intervene is when the issue first arises. As a supervisor, you need to make the rules known and follow them yourself with few and only well-justified exceptions.

It is not possible to treat everyone always the same because people have different needs, but you must enforce the rules consistently in a way that people recognize is both appropriate and disciplined.

Be alert for the following symptoms in your area of control. If you observe these, chances are you are enabling problem employees.

• Recognition that you are working around a “problem”
• Accusations that you are “playing favorites”
• Individuals claiming they do not understand documented policies
• Backroom discussions of how to handle a person who is out of control
• Denial or downplaying an issue that is well known in the area
• Fear of retaliation or sabotage if rules are enforced
• Cliques forming to protect certain individuals
• Pranks or horseplay perpetrated on some individuals

These are just a few signals that someone is being enabled and that you need to step up to the responsibility of being the enforcer.

Sometimes supervisors inherit an undisciplined situation from a previous weak leader. It can be a challenge to get people to follow rules they have habitually ignored.

One idea is to get the group together and review company policy or simply ask what the rules are in this organization. Often people do not know the policies, or pretend they do not know, because the application of rules has been eclectic.

This void gives you a perfect opportunity to restate or recast the rules to start fresh. It can be done as a group exercise to improve buy-in. When people have a hand in creating the rules, they tend to remember and follow them better.

If you are not a new leader but are in a situation where abuse has crept in, using this technique and taking responsible action can help you regain control and credibility.

The reward for making the tough calls is that people throughout the organization will respect you. Problems will be handled early when they are easier to correct. The downside of procrastinating on enforcement is that you appear weak, and people will continually push the boundaries.

The preceding information was adapted from the book Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.

Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc. a company dedicated to growing leaders.


Leadership Barometer 34 Skip the Sandwich

January 20, 2020

There are literally thousands of leadership courses for managers. In most of them, one of the techniques advocated is called the “sandwich” method.

The recommended approach when a leader has a difficult message to deliver is to start with some kind of positive statement about the other individual. This “softening up” is followed by the improvement opportunity. Finally, the leader gives an affirming statement of confidence in the individual.

Some people know this method as the C,C,C technique (compliment, criticize, compliment)

The theory behind the sandwich approach is that if you couch your negative implication between two happy thoughts, it will lessen the blow and make the input better tolerated by the person receiving the coaching.

The problem is that this method usually does not work, and it often undermines trust along with the credibility of the leader. Let’s examine why this conventional approach, as most managers use it, is poor advice.

First, recall when the sandwich technique was used on you. Remember how you felt? Chances are you were not fooled by the ruse. You got the message embodied in the central part of the sandwich, the meat, and mentally discounted the two slices of bread.

Why would you do that? After all, there were two positive things being said and only one negative one. The reason is the juxtaposition of the three elements in rapid fire left you feeling the sender was insincere with the first and last element and really only meant the central portion.

A manager might be able to slip the sandwich technique past you at the start of a relationship. At that point, you do not have a pattern to guide your subconscious thought. Later, if the manager has a habit of using the sandwich, you will become so adept that you will actually hear the second and third part of the sandwich coming up before they are even uttered by your manager.

This interesting phenomenon also occurs in e-mail exchanges. Managers often use the sandwich approach in an e-mail. It might sound like this:
“Your review of the financial information this morning was excellent, Mike. The only improvement I can see is to use more charts and fewer tables of figures to keep people from zoning out. Given your strong track record, I am sure you can make this tiny adjustment with ease.”

If you know this boss well, you can anticipate there is going to be a “but” in the middle long before the boss brings it up. The last part is a feeble attempt to prop you up after the real message has been delivered.

If you received this message, chances are you would have internalized the following: “Stop putting everyone to sleep with your boring tables and use colorful charts to show the data.” You would probably miss the compliment at the start because it was incongruent with the second message, and you would certainly discount the drivel at the end of the message because it was insincere.

It is not always wrong to use a balanced set of input, in fact, if done well, it is helpful. If there really is some specific good thing that was done, you can start with that thought.

Make the sincere compliment ring true and try to get some dialog on it rather than immediately shoot a zinger at the individual.

Then you can bring the conversation to the corrective side carefully. By sharing an idea for improvement, you can give a balanced view that will not seem manipulative or insincere.

Try to avoid the final “pep talk” unless there is something specific that you really want to stress. If that is the case, then it belongs upfront anyway.
Examine your own communication with people, especially subordinates, to reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach mechanically, particularly if you have to stretch to find the nice things to say.

You may find it hard to detect the sandwich in your spoken coaching, but it will be easier to spot in your written work. The habit is particularly common when writing performance reviews or when trying to encourage changes in behavior.

The sad thing for the boss is that he or she was actually taught that the sandwich technique is normally a good thing to do. That makes it easy to fall into a pattern of doing it subconsciously and not realize that it is actually lowering your own credibility, unless it is used very carefully, because you come across as insincere.

How can you reduce the tendency to use the sandwich approach if you already have the habit?

The first antidote is to become aware when you use it. That means you need to be especially alert when giving verbal input. It also means proofreading notes where you are rating people or trying to change behavior.

When you see the sandwich being used, change it. Give the request for modified behavior with no preamble or postscript in the same breath. Just frame up the information in as kind a way as you can, but be sincere in your words.

Do share a balance of positive and negative things as they apply, but do it naturally, not in a forced, 1,2,3 pattern.

A second way to stop using the technique is to teach others to stop using it. The best way to learn anything is to teach it to others. As you help others see their bad habit, it will remind you that it sometimes shows up in your own communication.

If you can reduce your tendency to use the sandwich approach by 50-80%, you will become a more polished and effective leader.

The third way to prevent this problem is to encourage the teachers of “Management 101” to stop suggesting this technique in the first place. It is not an effective method of changing behavior.

Instead teach leaders to give both positive and corrective feedback in a natural way and only include sincere and specific praise, never force something to butter up the other person.

People have a keen ability to sniff out insincere praise, especially if it is just after being corrected for doing something wrong.

Robert Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust


Body Language 63 Fist in the Air

January 17, 2020

The gesture of putting one’s fist in the air is a very common one, but it can cause misunderstandings if you do not couple it with corroborating signals.

Part of the confusion is that the different meanings are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. For example, the fist-in-the-air gesture at a football game would normally be a way to cheer on your team to victory, while if there were protesters outside the stadium, that same gesture could signify rebellion, hatred, or anger.

In order to ascribe the correct meaning to the fist-in-the-air gesture, you must factor in the context in which it is given and most importantly the facial expressions that accompany it.

When this gesture is seen in public, it is normally part of a group activity where many people are giving the same signal. It is possible to observe the gesture on the part of just one person, but that is rare.

In this brief article, I will describe several applications where the fist in the air might be observed along with the most likely message being sent.

A cheer of support

A fist in the air can be a supportive gesture among team members similar to a high five. It means we are all together, and we are united in a common cause. We support each other and cheer each other on with the gesture.

For example, you might see a sales team at their convention use this gesture when it is announced that the team met the aggressive sales goal for the year. Everyone would enjoy the year-end bonus as a result of reaching the challenging goal.

Appreciation

You can witness the fist in the air gesture among adoring fans at a rock concert. You will see many people in the audience highly animated jumping up and down with their fists in the air as they sing along to the lyrics.

Defiance

You can also see the fist in the air at political or social rallies. The connotation here is still that we are united in a purpose, but in this case it is often a negative form of protest.

In the Workplace

Workers can display their anger over a new policy being introduced by having many people in a meeting start showing their fists in the air.

At times like this, the leader who is conducting the meeting needs to see the anger building up and make a preventive statement before the gesture is taken up by most of the workers and it becomes like a mob scene.

For example, the leader might see one person starting to put his fist in the air and say something like:

“I know this is not going to be a popular move, but I wanted to share the information with you candidly as early as possible, because you have a right to be informed of the action. You also have the right to understand the reason this action was unavoidable. I will explain some ways we can get through this difficult time together.”

Warning

A fist in the air done by an individual may be a warning to keep physical or emotional distance. The idea here is to tell the other person to back off or face a possible sock in the jaw. The gesture may be accompanied by a shaking of the fist as the wicked witch did in “The Wizard of Oz.” As she shook her fist she cackled, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.”

In a work setting, you can avoid this kind of acrimony by having acceptable behaviors identified in advance. If the whole team has agreed to treat each other respectfully, then the threats or warnings will be fewer.

Hate

When the gesture is coupled by a stiff arm, it is more serious and an indication of extreme prejudice against a person, group, or ideal. Another dead give away for this attitude is the facial expression. If the person looks angry, then chances are he is expressing some form of hatred.

The news showed an example of that at a White Supremacists Hate Rally at University of Virginia in 2017. Many of the marchers had their fist in the air as they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

I once witnessed a large group of union workers with their fists in the air to express frustration and lack of trust with the management group. This public display of extreme disapproval was a major setback for the organization. It took months of effort to rebuild the respect of these workers.

The lesson here is to intervene with corrective measures before the frustration boils up to the point where people are shaking their fists in the air. Once people start using this gesture, it is a long and expensive road back to stability.

There are numerous examples of organizations that have pushed workers too far experience the push back of rebellion. The antidote is to build and maintain a culture of trust so that people feel heard and appreciated all along. That way the resentment never builds up to the boiling point.

Resolve or unyielding

When coupled with a clenched jaw and slight scowl, the fist in the air signifies an unyielding posture to what is going on. I am reminded me of the lyrics to a song, “I Won’t Back Down,” by the late Tom Petty:

I’ll stand my ground
Won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won’t back down.

You can see that there is a wide spectrum of possible meanings to a fist in the air gesture. You must be alert to the circumstances and the facial expressions to pick out an accurate meaning.

If you sense frustration building up, take special care to mitigate the damage before people start shaking their fists or you will be in for a long recovery. If you have managed to build trust by reducing the fear in your organization, you are less likely to need to take remedial actions.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”