Body language in the workplace

Recently, a client asked me to create a workshop on body language awareness as part of a wider ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiative. The idea was that making people more aware of each other’s non-verbal signals would help to promote respect in the workplace. At first I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, but the client convinced me: “Start with the body language stuff you do in your communication coaching and take it from there – you just need to get people talking.”

Having now run dozens of these workshops in a culturally diverse, UK based organisation, I’ve gained some fascinating insights into the etiquette of the modern workplace. The feedback has at times been humbling, like the self-confessed cynic who said, “I only came along because I had to, but actually this was the most valuable session I’ve attended in years.”

So what have I learned? In the absence of any defined rules of engagement, there is clearly a lot of confusion about non-verbal communication at work. At different extremes, some people are totally unaware of how their behaviour could cause offence, while others are so frightened of getting it wrong they avoid personal contact wherever possible. In today’s diverse workplaces, colleagues are increasingly confused about how to relate to each other.

Take for example something as simple as a standard business greeting. As part of the workshop, I ask everyone to greet each other with a handshake. Then we discuss the experience. As you would expect, people talk about firmness of grip and whether or not someone looks you in the eye when shaking your hand. But what happens when men and women greet each other? From a cultural point of view, some colleagues will not want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex for religious reasons (e.g. Orthodox Jews, Muslims). It is important to be aware of this to avoid potential embarrassment; a handshake should never be forced. Yet cultural differences aside, some men when shaking a woman’s hand will opt for a brief grasp of the fingers, as if they are about to go down on one knee in a chivalric bow.

Why does this happen? The men who did this told me that it was because they felt that ‘women’s hands are more delicate’. So I would then ask the women how they wanted men to shake their hands. Invariably the answer was in the same way as a man – properly but without excessive force. Interestingly, some women said they often avoided shaking another woman’s hand because it did not feel ‘natural’ to do so. Unless they know the other woman well, they would usually avoid physical contact and simply greet each other with a smile and a nod. In some cases, this has resulted in women course participants resolving that in future, they would make a point of shaking hands with other women.

Eye contact is another fascinating subject. The Western cultural norm is to look at someone when you are listening to them. Yet there are many parts of the world e.g. parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where it is considered disrespectful to do so, particularly when listening to an elder. One participant who was brought up in Nigeria described having been severely reprimanded by his grandfather for exactly this reason. Yet when he came to the UK, he realized that his ‘respectful’ avoidance of eye contact was not helping him in job interviews. Getting people to share their personal experiences in this way has led to many ‘light bulb’ moments.

By far the best experiences have been running the workshop on location for a whole team. Managers have told me that experiencing the workshop together was a bonding experience that enabled team members to discuss office behavior in a non-threatening way, when previously it had been in the ‘too difficult’ category. For example, it enabled a manager to talk to a team member about their habit of getting too close to people and why some people found this invasive of their personal space. (It turned out that the ‘space invader’ in question had hearing difficulties.) I’ve even been asked to run follow up sessions so that the people who missed the original training didn’t feel left out. How often does that happen for workplace training?

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