Your feedback session was letter perfect. You said everything you wanted to say. You gave examples. You were constructive. You asked your employee for their point of view. They agreed with your points. You checked off all the boxes.
So why didn’t it work?
Even worse, why is there an undercurrent of hostility or confusion now, between you and your employee? Why are they not responding with the changes you asked for?
It might be because you were sending mixed signals with your nonverbal cues and body language. Did you know that when we communicate, our tone and body language often speak more loudly than our words? One study from a half-century ago suggests that in certain types of conversations, only 7% of our message is conveyed through words.
I always recommend that managers and coaches supplement written, online feedback and coaching with face-to-face interaction. But it’s important that you aren’t undermining your words with your actions, tone, or expressions.
Your words might say “yes,” and your nonverbal cues might be countering that with a big, ugly “no.” Are you aware of all the nonverbal cues you might be sending?
Here are seven common ways managers can muddy the water and sabotage their own feedback:
1. Checking the time or messages on your phone — If you are constantly looking at your phone or your watch, you’re sending a message that you have better things to do. You’re checked out, so your employees will check out, too. Even setting the phone face down can send a message that you’re not fully engaged in the moment. Put your phone away out of sight and ask your employee to do the same. If you need to keep track of time, set a low-volume alarm as a reminder that the session is nearly up.
2. Fidgeting, tapping stuff, or picking at something — If you are a fidgeter, you will need to train yourself out of it. Picking at things makes you seem nervous, bored, or inattentive. Tapping your fingers, feet, or pens is distracting and you will appear disengaged in the conversation or stressed about what you are saying. It will make your employees equally jumpy and nervous.
3. The way you are sitting — Are you sitting on the edge of your chair with your feet pointed at the door, or your body turned away from your employee? This indicates stress or a desire to leave. Do you have your arms crossed tightly over your chest, in a posture that could be interpreted as defensive or aggressive? How you sit gives employees cues as to what your message is. All the gentle reassurances in the world won’t counter-balance a hostile body posture. Sit in a relaxed way, with your arms loose at your sides or on the table in front of you. Take up space, but not in an aggressive way. Lean toward your employee, and tilt your head when you listen to show empathy.
4. How you are using your hands — I already mentioned how crossing your arms may come off aggressive or hostile. So can pointing your finger, or clenching a fist. But did you know that using hand gestures to reinforce your words will make you seem more animated and engaged? Reaching a hand out , for example, sliding it slightly toward your employee on the table as you speak, or showing them your palms face-up, will indicate your desire to connect with them in an honest way.
5. Your eye contact — Eye contact can be tricky, as anyone who has gotten vertigo trying to choose which eye to look at knows. It is also culturally situational. Americans expect more eye contact, for example, than the British who find it aggressive. Too little eye contact and you will come off as insincere, weak, or unresolved. Too much eye contact can feel overbearing and frightening to an employee. If you find eye contact challenging, practice the triangle technique.
6. Sitting or standing too close — Sitting closer than 3 feet in a small room or 4 feet in a large one will make people feel threatened. Likewise, sitting at the other end of a large conference table can feel distant and detached. This will depend on the size of the room you are inhabiting. When you can, sit facing your employee, so that if you both reached out you could shake hands.
7. Wearing a fake smile — Did you know that the human face has 80 facial muscles that can create more than 7,000 facial expressions? Facial expressions — unlike many nonverbal cues — are not culturally sensitive. They are innate and species-wide. We are hardwired to know the difference between a fake smile and what’s called a zygomatic smile — a genuine one which engages our whole face. If you can’t give a real smile, don’t bother trying. Humans can spot a fake smile very easily and will usually react with hostility.
Here’s a final tip: Try writing down some notes during your session, as your employees speak. Use a pen and paper, not a computer, so that it’s clear you are writing notes and not answering emails. Note-taking, combined with eye-contact, will assure your employees that you are absorbing their words seriously.
Curious about other nonverbal cues? Check out this quick visual guide to employee body language.