You may think the main language spoken in your office is English. You'd be wrong. The language most spoken in your office isn't even spoken.

It's body language, and you need to be paying attention to it. Knowing how to read it makes you a better leader.

I speak from experience.

Regardless of how much of an open door policy you might have in the workplace, people aren't always going to feel comfortable bringing up problems or concerns with you. But, if you can read what that person is "saying" with their body language, it can help you pick up on some of the unspoken things going on in the workplace.

It helped me figure out something wasn't right with one of the top managers at one of the companies I founded. And this happened just one month after I started studying how to read body language.

Yes, it's that easy to pick up (with diligence and practice).

Here's what happened:

Why body language is important to learn

When I brought up certain subjects, I noticed this manager's discomfort increase. For example, during certain conversations with me, he would cross his arms and start to slowly move backward like he was trying to escape the conversation.

Other times he would cross his feet at the ankles and they would twitch rapidly, which showed me he was working hard to avoid saying something he really wanted to say. During several staff meetings, he would almost always cross his arms and move his lips when certain people were talking, which showed me he was particularly uncomfortable around those specific staff members.

I started to pose more questions to him and people he worked with about the subjects I could tell were making him uncomfortable. I did this as a way to get more feedback about him and what could possibly be bothering him so much.

Through a bit of digging, I ascertained this manager felt like he wasn't listened to as much as he should have been. We were able to address this issue together.

Even though this manager said all the right things when he was around me, I could tell something was amiss just by watching things like how he stood when I was talking to him, what he did with his hands and arms, which direction his feet were facing and all those other subtle background details that body language can give you.

Office superhero

Body language is like watching a movie twice, but only seeing it once.

When you watch a movie the first time, you get all the main action and dialogue, but you probably miss a lot of the subtle elements a director includes in the background. When you watch it the second time, you get to see all those subtle elements.

When you can read body language, it's like getting all the main action and dialogue, plus the subtle background elements all in one go.

Once you really get the hang of it, being able to read body language is like having a superpower.

In fairness, that superpower only goes so far. As Dr. Ray Birdwhistell, the anthropologist who founded kinesics (the study of body language), says: "No body position or movement, in and of itself, has a precise meaning."

A person might be crossing their arms because they are uncomfortable with you and want to create a physical barrier between the two of you. They might also just be cold.

That's why reading body language goes beyond looking at individual people. It also involves observing the general environment. And it greatly helps if you know the person or have been around them long enough to decide if the sign you're reading actually means what you're interpreting it to mean.

Like my manager, for example. I had known the guy for years--so once I knew what to look for, it was relatively easy to spot the signs of his discomfort.

Some resources for getting started

Being able to "read" people's body language will help you in any situation, business included. It won't make you into a walking lie-detector or anything like that, but it will make you a better listener, a better observer and, most importantly, a better leader.

To get you started, I recommend these two books and this one TED Talk:

Learn it and prepare to be amazed at what you'll learn about the people around you.

Published on: Jan 11, 2017
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