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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 or on this blog.

Body Language 16 Looking Over Glasses

February 23, 2019

Looking over the glasses has an unmistakable negative implication in most situations; however, there is a notable exception that I will describe later.

When a person is wearing full-sized glasses or bifocals, A slight lowering of the head so the person can look at another individual while making a statement is a demeaning gesture. It has the same connotation as a parent talking down to or scolding an impudent child.

The physical gesture is often accompanied by a lowering of the tone of voice. It is a way for the individual to put down the other person or make him or her feel inferior, or at least insecure.

The caveat with this gesture is that some people wear half glasses and tend to look over the tops of the glasses all the time. This can be problematic, because the individual wearing the glasses may be sending signals to others that are not intended.

I know one female CEO who wears half glasses and puts them rather far down her nose. She needs the magnification for reading, but she is farsighted and does not need glasses to view the world beyond the page.

In working with her, I observed that it was difficult to discern when she was being judgmental versus just having a neutral frame of mind. To be on the safe side, I found myself always on my guard when talking with her unless she took off her glasses completely. I basically found it difficult to trust her in some circumstances.

Some politicians have the same problem. I have found it hard to warm up to Chuck Schumer for that reason. If you go on Google Images and look him up, in every picture where he is wearing glasses, you can observe him looking over the top rim at the subject he is addressing.

I think people recognize there is a physiological reason for his habit, but I believe it works against the ability to trust him. Pardon me for not commenting on the level with which we can trust politicians in general regardless of the position of the glasses.

Looking over the classes is a common form of gesture that usually comes across as a negative one. You need to be careful what signals you are sending if you normally wear half glasses. You may be better off having full glass bifocals with the upper half being blank glass. See if you observe people warming up to you easier.

There can also be a different connotation for looking over the glasses. It can also be interpreted as a flirtatious gesture in some circumstances. The implication is that there is some sort of secret connection going on between the person wearing glasses and the other person.

The gesture has a “come hither” meaning that is easy to spot. The psychological implication is that of removing an artificial barrier for direct eye-to-eye contact. The difference between the first meaning and the second one is in the context of the meeting and the other accompanying facial expressions.

Another pet peeve of mine is people who wear their glasses on top of their head. If you don’t need glasses, keep them off your head. Don’t wear them up on top where the listener has to observe a precarious position and wonder if the glasses are going to drop off at any second. It is a distraction that is unnecessary.

I believe when making eye contact with a person who habitually wears his glasses on top of his head, it undermines the bond created by the eye contact. It is an anomaly that would be better served when it is not used.

If you have a habit of looking over your glasses, whether it be the result of wearing half glasses or the more egregious looking down your nose at some people, try to make a change in your pattern. Fortunately, this form of body language is rather easy to change, and you will benefit greatly from doing so.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 600 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Tyrant or Bully?

September 11, 2011

If you had to give one adjective to describe your boss, which one would you choose? Many people would select a positive adjective such as benevolent, caring, trustworthy, empathetic, passionate, or loyal. Others would choose a more neutral word like efficient, logical, helpful, kind, or fair. Still others (perhaps too many) would use an extremely negative word like demeaning, overbearing, spiteful, hypocritical, tyrant, or bully. In this article, I wanted to put the last two words under the microscope and examine what they mean and how leaders can take steps to avoid being viewed as either one of these adjectives.

In contrasting the two words, let’s first look to the dictionary. Here are the official brief definitions:
Tyrant – cruel or unjust ruler.
Bully – one who hurts or threatens weaker people.

The two concepts are not the same for sure, but they do overlap. It is easy to think of a leader who is a tyrant as someone who is also a bully. Can you imagine any tyrant who is not also a bully? I cannot. Likewise, a bully may or may not also be a tyrant. Most of us would agree that too much of a tendency in either of these directions will lead to low motivation or fear among the workforce.
The distinction in my mind is that a true tyrant needs to rule the roost, but a bully can be satisfied just pushing people around mentally or physically. The bully does not need absolute control to do his or her damage. In the everyday exchanges between people, the bully simply fails to take the feelings of others into account and insists on his or her way. The bully resembles a bulldozer and has a distorted mental image of what it is to be a leader. The bully feels superior to the “little people” and is convinced he or she is justified in pushing through the chosen decisions. Reason and analysis are generally not accepted by the bully.

If you have a boss who is either a tyrant or a bully, which one is easier to change? Changing the mindset of a tyrant is nearly impossible. It would take a life-changing event or some kind of miracle to reverse the aberration. Reason: the tyrant simply has no inclination to change and will not do so unless dethroned by edict or coup. The bully may be more curable by reasoning that often this person is operating at cross purposes to what he or she really wants to achieve (I will use the male pronoun for the remainder of this article to simplify the text).

In the workplace, the bully boss pushes people around as an expedient to get things accomplished without having to explain, rationalize, or debate. The bully also has a habit of blustering at people in order to get them to back off. Often, this pattern is a carryover from playground encounters as a child. The bully who has perfected his methods has an easier time in life at the expense of others. The impact of working for a bully boss usually leaves people in a state of very low motivation. This means that the more a boss bullies people, the less cooperation he will get, and eventually his goals will be compromised. If you can get a bully to recognize that he can get more of what he wants by taking a different approach, then you might have a more coachable person.

The most a bully can expect to get is tepid compliance, when to do well in this environment, any boss needs passionate enthusiasm. By training the bully to change his approach to people, we actually can educate him that there is a better way to get what he really wants in the long run. Sure, for the bully, being more participative may not be as much of a sport, but if it ultimately means more money in his pocket, there may be impetus to change.

If you work for a tyrant, chances are this person is also a bully. You can gain on the situation by helping the bully side become less dominant. That is real progress, and when the bully sees the positive changes in attitudes and improvements in productivity that accrue from reform, it may go a long way to softening the tyrant inside. It is a kind of momentum that can take over. When the bully really understands that a better existence is possible, changes in behavior follow easily. If you reinforce the new behaviors and ascribe them to the boss’ different habits, then he is likely to want more of the benefits, which will result in lower tendency to be a tyrant.