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Help! I'm on a Zoom Call and I Can't Read Body Language

You’re a skilled communicator. You’ve always prided yourself on your ability to read body language and pick up on social cues. How’s that going when you’re communicating almost exclusively through a screen these days?

I’ve had several people tell me they’re having a difficult time on Zoom meetings, especially when there are multiple people on a call. They say that because they can’t see posture, there’s no eye contact and they can’t read facial expressions as well, it’s hard to gauge engagement, agreement, disagreement, detachment etc.

In my opinion, that could actually be a good thing because when we rely on body language alone, we often misinterpret and misconstrue meaning. Without physical cues, we can focus more on what’s being said versus how it’s being said.

My opinion is based on my experience using the ECHO Listening Profile, a scientifically validated assessment that identifies an individual’s listening habits, or what they prefer to listen for in conversation and what they might unintentionally filter out. The research in developing the instrument identified four main habits in listening, which tend to show unique body language patterns displayed with the style.

Connective listeners filter through an external lens, focusing on what the interaction means for others. Their bodies tend to show engagement with direct eye contact, head nodding and leaning in. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re engaged and listening. Reflective listeners filter through a more internal lens, listening for what the interaction means for them and how it relates to their own experience and level of expertise. They are often misperceived as disengaged because they tend to lean back, sometimes with arms crossed, gazing upwards or at the horizon. Analytical listeners seek information and data. They often wear a furrowed brow and subsequently can be misperceived as challenging the speaker when actually they’re listening for accuracy and details. Conceptual listeners tend to listen for the big picture and abstract ideas as they filter through the lens of options, potentiality and the future. Their body language tends to be energetic with a lot of hand gestures and movement. They can be misperceived as fidgety and impatient at times when really, they’re excited about their ideas and inspirations and want to share them with others.

While the body language associated with each listening habit has not been scientifically validated, we do see these trends and the resulting impact from misperception.

In fact, last week I had a coaching client tell me she “went off” on her mother, whom she historically believes doesn’t trust her to make wise decisions. Her mom has been staying with her since the lockdown began and the tension is mounting daily. She said, “I lashed out when she asked me a question. Later I found out that I read it all wrong. I thought she was challenging me again, but she was actually trying to understand what I was saying. I feel really bad about it.”

I asked, “What happened to give you the impression she was challenging you or didn’t trust what you were saying?”

“She furrowed her brow, squinted and asked me for my source.”

This is a perfect example of misreading body language and the unfortunate bio-reactions that ensues. Reliance on body language alone, and misinterpretation of those cues can negatively impact relationships with coworkers, collaboration, and decision-making in a work setting, as well affect relationships with loved ones in personal settings.

What if my client hadn’t been able to see her mom’s furrowed brow and was able to hear the question for what it was intended to be? In this case, a request for a source so that her mom could read about it and get some facts. My client misperceived her mom’s furrowed brow as mistrust and a challenge to her credibility, when in reality, her mom just wanted more information.

The point I’m making is that when we understand the listening habits of those we frequently interact with, we can begin to soften some of our assumptions that make interacting with them difficult and unproductive at times.

We can learn a lot about people’s listening preferences by the questions they ask and the statements they make. We don’t have to rely entirely on their body language. When we observe how others speak and share information, we can listen for content, reducing the risk of costly assumptions.

In this new virtual business world, when we can’t observe body language through our screens, maybe we can focus more on what people are saying, not how they’re saying it, reducing stress and conflict while saving valuable time and resources.

If you’d like to learn more about the ECHO Listening Profile and how it can improve your team’s productivity and (family dynamics as well) connect with me and let’s set up a time to talk.

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