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 33 Downsizing Tips

January 13, 2020

Every organization deals with downsizing occasionally in a struggle to survive difficult economic conditions. These times are true tests of the quality of leadership.

In many cases, downsizing leads to numerous problems in its wake, especially lower trust.

The most crucial shortage threatening our world is not oil, money, or any other physical resource. It is the lack of enlightened leaders who know how to build trust and transparency, especially when draconian actions are contemplated.

We are in need of more leaders who can establish and maintain the right kind of environment. A serious problem is in the daily actions of the leaders who undermine trust, even though that is not their intention.

The current work climate for leaders exacerbates the problem. The ability to maintain trust and transparency during workforce reductions is a key skill few leaders have.

Downsizing is a unique opportunity to grow leaders who do have the ability to make difficult decisions in ways that maintain the essence of trust.

Thankfully, there are processes that allow leaders to accomplish incredibly complex restructurings and still keep the backbone of the organization strong and loyal. It takes exceptional skill and care to accomplish this, but it can be done.

The trick is to not fall victim to the conventional ways of surgery that have been ineffective numerous times in the past. Yes, if you need to, you can cut off a leg in the backwoods with a dirty bucksaw and a bottle of whisky, but there are far safer, effective, and less painful ways to accomplish such a traumatic pruning.

One helpful tool in a downsizing is to be as transparent as possible during the planning phase. In the past, HR managers have worried that disclosing a need for downsizing or reorganization might lead to sabotage or other forms of rebellion.

The irony is that, even with the best secrecy, everyone in the organization is well aware of an impending change long before it is announced, and the concealment only adds to the frustration.

Just as nature hates a vacuum, people find a void in communication intolerable. Not knowing what is going to happen is an incredibly potent poison.

Gossip and rumors generally make the problem bigger than it actually is, and leaders find themselves dealing with the fallout.

Human beings are far more resilient in the face of bad news than to uncertainty. Information freely given is a kind of anesthesia that allows managers to accomplish difficult operations with far less trauma. The transparency works for three reasons:

1. It allows time for people to assimilate and deal with the emotional upheaval and adjust their life plans accordingly.
2. It treats employees like adults who are respected enough to hear the bad news rather than children who can’t be trusted to deal with trauma and must be sheltered from reality until the last minute.
3. It allows time to cross-train those people who will be leaving with those who will inherit their work.

All three of these reasons, while not pleasant, do serve to enhance rather than destroy trust.

Don’t humiliate people

Another tip is how to break the news to someone who will be terminated. One way to handle the situation is to ask yourself how you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed. Would you like to be paraded down the hall to pack a box with your possessions and escorted outside the gate and forced to hand over your keys and badge?

Many enlightened leaders have handled the separation in a more humane way. They break the news to the individual and share that the employee needs to find alternative employment. They may even offer assistance with ideas on where to look and offer for a reference.

Then, the employee is not immediately escorted off the premises, but is allowed to pack things up over the next several days and say good bye to friends and work colleagues. Some employers have even experimented with letting the impacted worker use the facilities and equipment for a short while during the job search.

HR managers will quickly point out the risks of having formerly employed workers on the premises, and it is true that the person needs to understand that if he or she is disruptive in any way, then the leaving will be immediate.

The idea is that when you treat separated employees with respect and kindness, even when the news is not good, they respond with a better attitude, which generally improves the outcome.

The more powerful result is that the employees who are not leaving are also impressed by the way these former colleagues were treated. That factor tends to bolster morale a bit for workers who are now asked to take up the slack.

Full and timely disclosure of information and thoughtful exit processes are only two of the many tools leaders can use to help maintain or even grow trust while executing unpleasant necessities.

My study of leadership over the past several decades indicates that the situation is not hopeless. We simply need to teach leaders the benefits of building an environment of trust and transparency and how to obtain them.

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


Leadership Barometer 20 Lower Credibility Gap

October 16, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Lowers Credibility Gap

In any organization there exist credibility gaps between layers. These gaps lower the trust within the organization and make good communication more difficult. Great leaders have a knack for lowering these gaps by filling in believable information in both directions: up and down.

When there is tension between one layer and another, great leaders work to find out the root cause of the disconnect.

It could be a nasty rumor, it could be based on a prior breach of trust, it might be an impending reorganization or merger, it could be due to an outside force like a new government restriction. Whatever the root cause will determine the key to elimination of the gap.

Use your nose

Excellent leaders have a nose for these problems and head them off while the gap is a small crack and before it becomes like the Grand Canyon. They help people breach the divide by getting the two levels to communicate and really negotiate a better position.

Weak leaders are more like victims who wait till the battle is raging and the chasm is too broad to cross without a major investment in a bridge.

Silo thinking vs. Team mates

The insight that usually helps is to remind the differing camps that they are really on the same team.  Silo thinking leads to animosity between groups.  Great leaders remind people that they share common goals at a higher level. There is no need for warfare.

A leader who has this skill is easy to spot because there are few paralyzing situations that have to be resolved. If you are one of those leaders, it will be evident. If you are not, it will also be evident. Seek to knit the organization together at every opportunity.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Body Language 47 Conflict

September 28, 2019

Conflict brings out all kinds of body language that is rather easy to interpret. In this picture, we see one individual trying to make a point but the other person completely blocking out the information, at least on the surface.

There is a significant caution before I get into the analysis to follow. You cannot judge the totality of what is going on from a single picture or view of what is happening. The attached photo, may not tell the whole story.

Anger

One person is speaking in anger or frustration, and the other person is obviously shutting her out and rolling her eyes upward. It is clear that there is conflict going on, but it is not clear where, why, and how the conflict began. It probably predates this specific conversation.

Also, keep in mind that in any situation both parties are acting according to their own viewpoint of what is right to do. Each person is totally justified in her own mind, and each is frustrated.

Information

When trying to assess what is going on in communication between individuals, you need a lot more background and information to figure out why each person is acting the way she is.

Is there a history of conflict between these two people? Does the speaker or listener have a history of conflict with others in the office? If a person habitually brings conflict to situations, others will not want to interact with her or will interact with her badly.

When a person is listening to another individual, he or she normally “attends” to the other person by looking at least in his direction and often making eye contact. There will also be some additional attending gestures such as head nodding or head tilting to indicate attention.

Engage

The listener may be day dreaming or totally focusing on what he or she is going to say next, but at least there is some attempt to look engaged in the conversation. There can be less overt ways a listener can show disinterest in the conversation. For example, the listener may start reading email on her phone or pick up a catalog and start leafing through it. Another common ploy is to just put a blank look on her face and show no emotion or connection to the conversation.

Blocking

Occasionally, you will run into an individual such as in the picture who has no intention of listening and tries to show it as graphically as possible. Here we see the woman actually blocking eye contact with her hand and making a sarcastic eye roll to enhance the signal. She clearly does not want to listen, and the situation between the two people has escalated to a point where she has no qualms about sending strong signals.

Safety

When a listener withdraws, it can be a clue that the person does not feel safe in the situation or with the person who is speaking. The body language is defensive and may be a way of protecting the person from harsh or demeaning words.

Another reason for withdrawal may be that the listener knows from experience that the interchange will not be positive or productive. Negative interchanges can have long term repercussions.

Whatever the outward signal, if the listener is showing little interest in the input, it is best to think broadly about why you are getting this behavior or just go mute. As long as you are droning on, the listener is free to show absolutely no interest in what you have to say. Keep in mind that what the other person wanted you to do in the first place was shut up, so the awkward silence may get extremely long.

If the speaker is one who creates conflict and the listener wants to avoid it, there is probably nothing the listener can say that will be accepted by the speaker, so the listener has no real incentive to say anything.

Avoid threats

One thing to avoid is saying something like “Why don’t you look at me when I am speaking to you?” A question like that can be interpreted as threatening. The same problem occurs with talking louder or faster. These actions will not remedy the situation, and they can even make the situation worse.

Situations like this point to larger or ongoing problems that have resulted in a lack of trust between people. The trust level needs to be addressed before open and meaningful communications can begin. It is wise for both people to think back on the progression of the relationship that brought them to this point.

Either person can act to improve the situation. Either can say, “It seems like we are not communicating well. I don’t want to be in conflict with you. What can we do to repair this situation?” However, if there is a persistent instigator of conflict, that is the person who has the most responsibility to repair the relationship and rebuild trust. The other person may have tried many things in the past to reach out or express herself, was shut down, and now has given up.

Each person needs to examine her contribution to the ongoing issues.

Trust

Obviously a good, constructive conversation requires that both parties participate roughly equally. If the speaker does not let the listener respond, it is not a real conversation and creates a breach of trust. If the listener withdraws from the beginning, even if it is a result of prior bad experiences, it does nothing to heal the relationship.

Bilateral trust is vital for mature conversation. When you run into a situation like the ones described above, don’t try to badger the other person into paying attention, and if you are the person listening, don’t withdraw. Work through the issues that you have. Investigate what may be causing the issues, talk it through, and and try to rebuild trust. It can take time, but reestablishing an environment of trust is well worth the effort for both people and the entire organization.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on https://www.leadergrow.com/articles/categories/35-body-language or on this blog.


Leadership Barometer 17 Optimize Communication

September 23, 2019

There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Optimize communication

All of us communicate all of the time. When you add the body language to what we say, there is a steady stream of communication all day, every day. So why does communication always surface in the top 2 of every employee satisfaction survey as the most significant problem facing an organization?

The sad fact is that most leaders are not that good at communicating, even though they work very hard at it. Let’s first look at the symptom from two vantage points.

The leader feels nearly overwhelmed with the need to communicate. In fact, the leader is communicating from the moment she logs on in the morning until she turns out the light exhausted at the end of the day.

All work is a steady stream of explaining what is happening, reinforcing good work, explaining how poor attitudes are not helping, discussing the new product roll out, etc. So it is a frustration when people feedback that there is “never any communication” going on. Wow, what a slap in the face.

From the worker’s perspective, the signals that are coming through are not consistent and often incomprehensible. They long for information in a format and frequency that computes to them.

The messages heard are not consistent with the messages sent by the leader. There are frequent surprises where a vacuum in communication is followed by a “gotcha” announcement.

The battle for excellent communication rages every day in every organization. Let’s take a look at some of the root causes of poor downward communication to uncover some opportunities for improvement.

1. Frequency – the span between communication on key issues is more tricky than meets the eye. The old rule of “the more the merrier” is really not the best policy.

When you constantly say the same message in the same format, eventually people tune it out, and you might better not have said anything because nobody is listening anymore. Yet, the other extreme is worse, if your touch points are so infrequent that people have forgotten the context of the message, then they will listen and hear, but not understand.

So what is the antidote? How do leaders find the sweet spot? You need to let feedback from people be the volume control on your outgoing communication. Most of this feedback comes in body language – often in group settings.

2. Boring Message – I have seen really good leaders who tend to drone on in a monotone style that puts everybody to sleep. So, all the information is given, but everyone is zzzzd out, and there is poor communication.

The best way to avoid this is to watch for the MEGO effect (short for My Eyes Glaze Over). When people get that look, you need to stop and ask a question. Get the audience back with you.

Change the cadence, even use 5 seconds of silence to get the group conscious again. Get people up on their feet or engaged in a question for discussion among small groups. The energy needs to be on a conscious level for people to grasp meaning.

I know the CEO of an organization that communicates with a deck of 50-100 PowerPoint slides. After the third slide, everybody in the audience is politely staring at the screen with the facial appearance of listening when in reality they are absorbing none of the information.

The antidote here is to get the CEO some basic training on PowerPoint no-no’s and make sure he doesn’t sleep through the class.

3. Not what I said – Some people hear what they think you are going to say, even if you say something else. Their predisposition leaves them incapable of absorbing the actual words and meaning.

It reminds me of the old Archie Bunker quote, when he says to his wife, Edith, “The reason you don’t understand me, is because I’m talking in English and you’re listening in Dingbat!” During any presentation, test with your audience if you are getting through the fog. You may need to learn to speak in “dingbat.”

4. Too complex – In an effort to be complete with communications, many leaders are their own worst enemy. People can only absorb and internalize so much information at one time.

Exactly how the information is conveyed has a lot to do with how much can be presented at any one time. Make sure each communication effort has only two or three key points and these are repeated at least three times in the presentation.

Test afterward if people really understood those three key points. Use illustrations when possible, and consider the different learning styles of your audience.

5. Management Speak – Leaders often talk in a kind of language I call “management speak.” They need to understand that the average shop floor person does not relate to ROI or references to Maslow. Make sure your communication is on a level where people can readily grasp the message.

However, be very careful to not “talk down” to people on the shop floor. They are not dumb; in fact they are incredibly smart. They just use different words, and you need to use their language as much as possible when communicating messages to them.

Resist the temptation to “dumb down the message” so they can understand. Instead think of using the right language. Just because they do not know Latin is no reason to treat them as ignorant.

6. Shifting messages – It is not a static world, so a valid message on Wednesday may be the wrong one on Friday. The problem here is that leaders are cognizant of what transpired as the current message morphed into something different.

Unfortunately, the shop floor people are not up to speed on the shifting sands. All they experience is a confusing message that is not consistent. Actually, this problem is more pervasive than leaders recognize, and it is a key reason why there is such a disconnect.

The antidote is for leaders to be extremely cognizant of any small change in the message over time. Make sure you bring people up to speed on the background for the change if you want them to grasp the true meaning.

7. Electronic Communication – Leaders have shifted to a much higher percentage of communication virtually. It is not in the scope of this short article to go over all of the gremlins in this mode of communication. It took me 300 pages in a book to describe how leaders fail to navigate the minefield of successful online communication.

Suffice to say this is an area of great peril. Unfortunately, most leaders think there is little difference between communicating face to face versus online. There is a huge difference (I outline 8 major differences in my book).

An example may help here. Most people view an e-mail like a conversation. You have information coming in, you process it, and then send information out. Just a conversation, right? Wrong! When we talk to people face to face, we are constantly modifying the message, cadence, body language, and the words based on the real-time feedback we are getting.

Online, there is no feedback while the message is being sent. It is all blind, and we have no way to correct things if we are off track. Thinking of online communication like a conversation is extremely dangerous.

8. Communicating at the head level – Good communication does not occur at the “head” level. Sure, we use the mouth to speak, the ears to hear, the brain to interpret, the eyes to see, etc. Real communication is deep in the gut.

When you have internalized the message fully, it goes well into the body. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have communicated with someone because you have talked and they appear to have heard it. Verify what was taken in at the gut level.

Those are just 8 ways of improving communication. Actually there are hundreds of them, this article only scratches the surface. But, if you focus on these few important considerations, you can really improve your communications with people.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Leadership Barometer 15 Quality of Decisions

September 10, 2019

Here is a good indicator of the quality of a leader.

Make Good Decisions

This measure sounds so trivial and axiomatic that you probably wonder why I list it at all. Unfortunately, many would-be great leaders make rather stupid decisions for one reason or another. I often puzzle at how it is possible for a leader to do something that takes him in exactly the opposite direction he is trying to go. That sounds illogical, I know, so let’s examine some of the forces that could allow this to happen.

1. Stupidity – This is a simple situation of making a bonehead decision. It is like the leader who intellectually knows it is better to admit a mistake than to hide it because that actually increases respect, but chooses to hide it anyway. Sad to say there are many stupid leaders out there who make wrong decisions rather consistently.

2. Time pressure – I had a teacher once tell me “You can write a term paper in 3 months or 3 hours, the only difference is the quality.” So it goes with decisions. Quality goes up with more thought, at least up to a point. After a while the old syndrome of analysis paralysis takes over, and the decision process becomes entirely too cumbersome.

3. Poor information – often decisions are based on input from others. If a leader blindly takes bad information and makes big decisions based on it, they will turn out bad. That was the problem when George Bush decided to invade Iraq to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction. After sifting the sand of that entire country for years, we never did find the problem we allegedly went in to eliminate.

4. Going along with bad advice from above – there are times when your boss will toss out a half-baked idea and say “Why don’t you try it.” Be careful to get good reasoned advice before taking the plunge. If you find yourself on a wild goose chase, don’t forget to ask who let the goose out of the cage to begin with.

5. Not accounting for risk – Every decision has an element of risk. If you make a decision based on optimism and faith but do not consider the potential downsides of it, you will eventually get caught in a nasty situation. Get the facts and consider what could go wrong as part of your planning process.

6. Sub-optimizing on only part of the story – it is really easy to please one constituency while alienating another one. You can please the shareholders by eliminating salary increases for a year, but the employees will suffer. There are numerous situations where there are tradeoffs. Go in with your eyes wide open on the holistic impact of your decisions on all stakeholders.

7. Not thinking of the customer – for every action or decision, there is a customer. Make sure you know who the customer is and that the customer is well served by your decision.

8. Repeat of something that did not work before –Making the same bonehead move you have made in the past hoping for a better result should qualify you for a white jacket with very long sleeves. It is the classic definition of insanity.

9. Distracted by a bigger issue – often there are numerous decision processes going on simultaneously. You need to consider each one carefully and not put so much energy into one decision that you starve another. There is no forgiveness if you make a bad decision on the cart because you were focused on the horse.

10. Hubris – Decisions made to feed the ego can often lead to disastrous consequences. Try to not get married to your ideas too early. Listen to all sides and think carefully about the full consequences before becoming an advocate of one approach.

11. Lack of communication – If you make a brilliant decision, but everyone else thinks it is stupid because you failed to explain your rationale, you are in trouble. You need to bring others into the process as early and completely as you can.

So, on first blush, the notion of making good decisions sounded trivial, but after considering some of the ways leaders get tripped up, the above checklist ought to be a good starter kit for a master list in your organization of how to make better decisions. I am sure there are several things I missed on my list that you can think of.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.


Leadership Barometer 8 Not Playing Games

July 23, 2019

Here is a quick way to assess the quality of a leader.

Build a real environment

Many people describe the actions and decisions of their leader as a kind of game.  There is an agenda going on in the head of the leader, but the true intent is often hidden from view.

This situation is common in all parts of our society from C-Level executives, to politicians, clergy, academics, lawyers, accountants, law enforcement, and really every corner of society.

Another symptom is that the story changes from day to day without any apparent provocation or believable explanation. People try to guess what the leader really wants, only to be embarrassed or disappointed when they make a wrong assumption.  It is a common break room discussion for people to speculate what the leader is trying to accomplish by the latest pronouncement.

The contrast with this pattern when there is an excellent leader at the helm could not be more clear.  Great leaders do not play games. They build a culture of trust, where people know the objectives, and all actions are in alignment with those objectives. Workers know what is going on in the mind of the leader and are expected to point out anything that would seem to deviate from the plan.

This condition leads to maximum engagement of everyone because there is no need for second guessing.

Do not assume people know

It is important for any leader to not assume people know the intent.  Since all actions are totally rational in the mind of the leaders, it is a simple leap to figure that other people can connect the dots as well.  You can tell when people are confused by their body language.

A puzzled look on the face is the easy way to spot the confusion. Great leaders are constantly trying to sniff out any possibility of misinterpretation, so they can take immediate corrective actions.

Poor leaders go ahead blindly, assuming that everyone will figure out why a certain action was taken. Sometimes they are astonished to discover significant confusion and wonder why motivation is so low.

That disconnect becomes the acid test of a good leader on this dimension. If there are rarely or never any need to go back and explain an action or statement, then this leader is communicating well and not playing head games with people. In that environment, trust will grow strong, and it will endure.

Put a high premium on direct information, and always verify that people understand not only what you are advocating but why you think that is the wise path. That verification allows people to challenge anything that seems to be out of the expected so that corrections can be made before damage is done.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations.