Published here September 2013


Musings Index

More Powerful Than Just Listening

Wouldn't it be nice to know what your colleagues are really thinking? Or, what your adversaries are really thinking? Or even what your boss is thinking? According to Albert Mehrabian, in Psychology Today (1968),

  • Only 7% of the total message is conveyed by the words
  • Another 38% by the vocal tones used, and
  • 55% of the message is conveyed by facial and body expression

That's 93% of the message conveyed by "non-verbal" language! Even the body language alone is impressive at more than half! Okay, we're not going to guarantee the exact percentages but obviously this non-verbal side is most significant.

That's why, when it comes to project management, face-to-face meetings are so important and all other means of communicating are so inefficient from a communications perspective. And, yes, that includes Email, telephoning and especially tweeting. It is so easy to get misunderstood. And that applies even more so to "virtual teamwork" that is much touted around the world today. (Reminder - crank up your project risk allowance in the absence of non-verbal language!)

Worse yet, so often the non-verbal message is not consistent with what you are hearing, especially in difficult situations. In fact, if you can only read it, the non-verbal message is probably more reliable because it is an unguarded and spontaneous reflection of the real intent.

So what can we tell you? Here are a few pointers. Note, however, these are the instinctive reactions representative of a Western culture. People of other ethnic cultures are probably, and most likely, very different.


  • Rubbing palms
  • Jingling money openly
  • Crossed fingers
  • Moving closer
  • Broad smile


  • Steepling (fingers touching like a church steeple)
  • Hands behind back, authority position
  • Back stiffened and standing more upright
  • Hands in coat pockets with thumbs out
  • Hands on lapels of coat


  • Hand-to-face gestures
  • Stroking chin
  • Putting eye glass ear piece in mouth
  • Getting up from table and walking around
  • Putting hand to bridge of nose

Cooperation and readiness

  • Open hands
  • Hands on hips
  • Sitting on edge of chair
  • Arms spread, gripping edge of table or desk
  • Moving closer


  • Hand to chest
  • Open arms and hands
  • Touching gestures
  • Moving closer, one to another
  • Preening

As you can see, all of those are positive signals. But what about danger signals? There are plenty of those as well.

Boredom, lack of interest

  • Blank stare
  • Doodling
  • Drumming with fingers
  • Head in palm of hands
  • Legs crossed, foot kicking


  • Not looking at the other person
  • Tugging at ear
  • Hands cover mouth while speaking
  • Soft whistling
  • Jingling money or keys in pocket

Suspicion, opposition

  • Rubbing eyes
  • Touching or rubbing nose
  • Arms crossed on chest
  • Not looking at you
  • Buttoning coat, drawing away

Frustration, annoyance

  • Tightly clenched or wringing hands
  • Fist-like gestures
  • Pointing index finger
  • Running hand through hair
  • Kicking at ground or an imaginary object

Aggressiveness, territorial claim, bad news

  • Elevating oneself
  • Leaning back with hands behind head
  • Leaning against or touching an object
  • Placing an object in a desired space
  • Feet on desk

Armed with these insights, you can now deduce the true message, and proceed accordingly. Only really clever actors can control their emotions to disguise the truth.

For more indications, see Iacs 1435 and 1436 in our Issacons department.

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