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Body language expert: Reading between the lines


Last month body language expert, Peter Clayton explained how to deal with the know-it-all delegate. This time, he advises on how to tell when your clients are hiding the truth.

The problem

I'm a relatively new in-house coach and am keen to get honest, constructive feedback, but I fear that the managers that I work with are being too polite. They tell me the job I am doing is ‘great’. How can I tell if this is really what they think?

The solution

This is a difficult one. It happened to me as a director of a company also responsible for delivering training. They used to applaud when I said hello to them in the morning! Body language in business can be difficult to read because people are polite, even when they are disagreeing with you. Most of the time colleagues don’t want an argument over something trivial. So how can you tell if you are really doing a good coaching job?

The first thing to do is to spend a minute or two talking about general things and observe how the person you are talking to responds to trivia. Is their eye contact 60%, 90%? Are the eyes expressive and easy to read? Are they leaning very slightly forward? What is their normal voice level? These are the benchmarks for this person’s normal body language. When you start asking specific questions that they feel unsure and awkward about, eye contact will be a lot less. They will look down and away, use fewer muscles in the face. The volume of their voice will also drop and be far less expressive. The tone will be more polite than conversational. Pupils may constrict, which is a sign of concealment or even lying. The opposite happens when someone is enthusiastic. The eyes dilate and this change is often referred to as ‘Beady’ and ‘Bambi’ eyes.

When boredom hits

If this goes on for a while and the person you are talking to is not as enthusiastic as you are, body posture will take on what looks like a more relaxed position, but maybe boredom. They will move back and down in their seat and their body will become a little bit more solid, sentences shorter. They may use more distancing statements such as “if that is what every one thinks, I'm okay.” If you want to check on this ask them a question. If their voice sounds quiet and flat you know you have a problem and should investigate, as it could be a number of things. It could be the course topic being covered is either too difficult or something they consider to be irrelevant or beneath them and patronising. Unless you ask and can respond to it in much the same way as you would an objection, you will just think they are not interested.

An important point that I always want to know about the delegates I am training is are they keen to be there or have they been sent by departmental bosses. On a typical course of ten delegates, I would expect to have two to three who would rather be somewhere else. The best way to determine this is to get them all to do an introduction that lasts about two minutes each. Ask them to tell a bit about themselves and what they would like to get out of the course based upon recent issues.

"The very best way of telling that the training day has been successful is by how many delegates stay behind at the end of the day to ask questions or tell you about something that they are trying to solve."

The first person will probably give a short answer, as they are not quite sure how much information you want. Ask them a number of open questions: “What sort of issues have you encountered recently that we can factor into today’s course?” and start to develop any small answers into something that you can work with. Try to get the first introduction up to two minutes. This will forewarn the others that you will be asking them similar questions. Go around the table and those who don’t want to be there will not have given it any thought and won’t have very helpful answers.

The enthusiastic delegates will be very specific. As the answers start to get more helpful to you in delivering the course, look at that other delegates. Move from person to person and see who agrees and who is not interested. By the time you have finished your introductions, which should take ten to fifteen minutes, you will know exactly how to deliver your first module. Will you need to lean heavily on why they should learn this or how useful it will be? If they are already keen to be there you can get into the module much quicker. I also use the introductions to see what the individuals think about each other.

While someone is making a statement about what they want to get out of the course, I am interested in looking at the others to see if they agree or whether they are giving the “you would say that” look. This again provides me with further helpful information as to how to proceed with the course.

Using a workshop to your advantage

Another good tool for determining whether a course is running successfully is the workshop, which I use in two ways. It gets delegates more involved in the course and reveals if they are agreeing with the course content. Split your delegates into teams of two or three, whatever is reasonable, and move them to different corners of the room. Let them spend five to ten minutes considering what they think about the module you have just covered, how they might have gone about achieving the objective you have just given them.

Someone from each team should be elected to deliver the feedback, preferably as a presentation at the front of the room. If they are enthusiastic about what they are learning there will be a lot of rich content that is constructive and useful. Other members of their team will chip in with a few comments they think their presenter might have left out. This tells you that they are working as a team, but also that they are enjoying the process; therefore your training must be working.

If they come back with short uninteresting presentations, their team members don’t get involved or don’t really look in the direction of the person delivering the answers, it will allow you to ask questions as to how appropriate you think that module was in getting the information across. You might hear phrases such as: “We are not sure we agree with everything that’s being said but this is what we think…” If it is polite and considerate, they like you but are not sure about the topic, which could mean it is not really relevant to what they do on a day-to-day basis or they consider the level to be below them.  These are great indicators for future courses.

From a body language point of view others in the room will be nodding at certain points, looking at individuals that are delivering the answer and other members of the team. Again this will tell you as to how relevant the module is. As the second group stands up and then the third they will start to endorse what has been said but with a different twist on it so they will add some information with regard to disagreement. “I agree with what John was saying. In our department we don’t need to do...and whilst I found this interesting I am not quite sure how it fits in”. That is code for appreciation, but not for the module content. It is important to bear in mind that it may not be disappointment with you as a trainer, but that the training content is not appropriate at their level and expertise or they may not have a use for it.

On a final note on this question, the very best way of telling that the training day has been successful is by how many delegates stay behind at the end of the day to ask questions or tell you about something that they are trying to solve. If you had ten delegates on the day and three or four stay behind to talk to you, then you have done a good job, the modules have been really relevant and you should feel good about yourself. If they all politely smile, possibly shake hands and go back to their workplace, there is definitely something you need to think about for future training.

Do you have a pressing body-language related issue that Peter can help you with? If so, please email us at [email protected].

Read Peter's last column here.

Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his website:

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