Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to Know What Your Boss is Thinking

I remember watching an episode of "Gilligan's Island" where the hapless castaways ate some kind of seed or berry, and it turned them into mind readers. They quickly discovered that it wasn't always such a good idea to be able to know what someone else was thinking -- but I'm not so sure those in the workplace would agree. Here's a story I did on nonverbal cues for Gannett....

There are some days you may wish you were a mind reader.

For example, in a job interview, you may wonder if you’re making a good impression on the hiring manager or boring him silly. Or, perhaps you present the boss with your new idea, but you wonder if she thinks you’re brilliant, or about as smart as a bag of rocks.

If you could just know what a hiring manager or a boss – or even a customer or colleague – were thinking, it would certainly save you a lot of stress and aggravation, couldn’t it?

That’s how someone like Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent who specializes in nonverbal communication, can help. He may not be able to teach you to be a mind reader, but he can help you use the same strategies that law enforcement professionals use when trying to get the truth from a suspect, for example. From the raised eyebrow to the crossed arms, Navarro says these “non-verbal cues” can give you a real insight into what someone is thinking.

For example, he says that if the person greeting you has an “eyebrow flash” – or quickly arched brows – “that means I’m really impressed with you.” On the other hand, barely lifted eyes show “I’m not very interested,” he says.

“Non-verbal communication is everything that’s not a word. It could be how quickly someone responds to a question, or how they tilt their head while listening to you,” says Navarro, author of “Louder Than Words,” (Harper, $24.99).

Here are some ways he says we can learn from non-verbal cues:

  • When someone likes what you’re saying, they lean forward or write down more of what you say. For example, if a hiring manager is “dismissing you outright,” he or she may not take many notes.
  • If someone nods his head while you’re speaking, or tilts it to one side, this shows they’re being receptive to what you’re saying. Holding the neck or head rigidly means the person isn’t open to your words.
  • Someone who squints may be hearing something she feels negative about, while large, open eyes mean the person in interested in what you have to say.
  • When lips are compressed or narrowed, it means the person isn’t really interested “and is just going through the motions.” Full and pliable lips mean the person is enjoying what is being said.
  • If an interviewer gives you more time to answer questions, it means things are going well. If the hiring manager is cutting you off, it can mean that things are going downhill.

How can you use non-verbal cues to your advantage with a manager? Navarro suggests you:

  • Observe the boss’s habits. Some managers like to hit the ground running first thing in the morning, and are focused on getting their “to do” list done. This means it’s not a good idea to interrupt him or her immediately upon arriving unless it’s critical. Or, maybe the boss likes to walk around and socialize over a cup of coffee. The boss will be receptive to a message while relaxed and chatting with others. Then is the time to say, “I need to talk to you later about something” and make an appointment.
  • Look at the boss’s face. A furrowed forehead and a narrowing of the gap between the eyes points to tension, so steer clear of the boss when that is present. The only problem with this cue is if the person has used Botox, which can make it difficult to tell if the person is truly angry or happy. In that case, look for other signs such as a throbbing muscle in the jaw or lip compression. “That means it’s not a good time to talk,” he says.
  • Share good news. If you only talk to your supervisor when you have bad news, then he or she will begin to form negative impressions “before you ever open your mouth,” Navarro says. Instead, find ways to share happy or non-stressful news sometimes so that he’s more receptive when you do have bad news.
  • Angle in. Never stand or sit directly in front of a boss, because “it’s too primate, too aggressive,” Navarro says. The boss will feel less tense if you stand slightly to one side.
  • Display confidence. Keep your shoulders squared, your hands in front of your body to gesture and don’t entwine your fingers. To show great confidence, steeple your hands when speaking and never keep your hands below the table.
Do you try to read non-verbal cues? Do you think it works?



Karl Staib - Work Happy Now said...

Non-verbal cues are so very important. It's funny how we pick up on them naturally. The thing is we need to be more aware, so we can use them to our advantage.

I'm always amazed by how people are afraid to approach authority figures. They are people too. They like to chat about their lives. I should say they love to chat about their lives.

We need to engage our bosses so we know their needs and in turn they are more willing to listen to our needs too.

Anita said...

Thanks for your comments...we may not always like our bosses, but it's critical we learn to get along with them. Making friendly conversations is a great way to do that.

Kingsley Tagbo, IT Career Coach said...

Interesting stuff. We would all do well to tune in more to others' non-verbal cues.
As and aside, I've heard from other sources that the hand "steeple" makes one appear condescending, though. What do you think?

Anita said...

I can see how the "steeple" position might seem condescending...I suppose a lot would depend on the situation,who was doing it and the conversation. I think non-verbal cues are important, but I also believe they're just one tool. For example, I have a tendency to cross my arms tightly to keep myself from fidgeting, but I do it to focus on what's being said...not because I don't like the person.