Executive Careers Blog

You and Your Body Language

In poker, they’d call it a “tell.”

One night after dinner, my daughter Rebecca, then five, wanted ice cream. “Had any sweets today, honey?” I asked.

“No.” Then she smiled involuntarily, as if to say, “I’ve been eating vast quantities of sugar all day and night, you idiot.”

She quickly realized her mistake. “Wait Daddy,” she said. “Ask me again.”

Nonverbal signals. We watch them because they often “tell” the truth – unless you’re dealing with a sharp poker player, a trained actor, or an experienced sociopath.

When the words and the body language don’t match – that’s a mixed message – we trust the body language. Some mixed messages are ok, others not.


1) Bad mixed message: A CEO I know never smiles. That makes his feedback confusing.

Suppose he says you’re doing a “good job.” The words sound fine, but his flat voice and non-smile signal trouble. “Good job,” sounds like “not good enough.”

“Something bad is about to happen to you,” the CEO’s body language suggests, “but given your performance, it’s probably not bad enough.”

2) Neutral mixed message: You’re walking around the office, and you spot a colleague. “How are you?” you ask.

Then, before he can say, “I’ve got a bad case of swine flu,” you sprint past him in a mad dash down the hall, as if to say, “I need to get away from you, right now!”

Well, that’s definitely a mixed message. But everyone does it.

3) Good mixed message: Suppose you need to say “no.”

“I’d love to help you, Bob,” you might say in a pleasant voice, “with your idea to organize an extreme, ‘let’s-just-golf-till-we-drop’ retreat.

“But I won’t be able to get to that today, tomorrow or, to be perfectly honest, Bob, ever.”

Tip: Generally, for a good-news (You’re hired!) message, or a bad-news (You’re fired!) message, it’s better if your words and nonverbals match. That way, you’ll look congruent, as opposed to insane.

But occasionally, it pays to send a mixed message. When your words need to be strong and assertive–and you also need to maintain the relationship–soften your body language.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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