Blanchard & Walker Weekly

Topic of the Week  You Don't Say: Reading Non-Verbal Clues at Work

  • Don't overestimate eye contact.
  • Do look beyond the smile.
  • Do listen for pitch.
  • Do look for inconsistencies.

Okay, I was a fan of "Lie to Me" the TV show focusing on non-verbal communication and how it often can tell you more about what a person is actually thinking than their words. Which reminds me of Lawrence C. Lawson. This 60 year old was charged with robbing the Lasalle Bank in Troy, Michigan. He stole the money without a hitch. The jig was up however when he spotted a passing police car and promptly fainted. Police discovered the loot when they tried to come to his aid.

It would be so easy if everyone could just faint at work when they were spotted doing something they shouldn't be doing, like. Mr. Lawson. But at work isn't that easy to read your coworkers. You've got to be a lot smarter than that about body language and what it's really telling you about people and their motives. For more information, please check out "Face-To-Face Communication" by the Harvard Business School Press (HBS, 2004).

Don't overestimate eye contact. Most of us believe that if we look deeply enough in people's eyes we can really know if they're telling us the truth. That's why it's so interesting to learn that the number one mistake that people make when it comes to body language is that they over rely on eye contact. I'm not saying don't look into someone's eyes. Just don't stop there. Look for other clues that either corroborate or contradict what you read from their eyes.

Do look beyond the smile. The only thing better than a jump shot for a talented basketball player is a great smile. Announcers and fans just love a player who has a smile that can light up an entire arena. Personally I prefer a great outside shot. Again, smiles can be one data point, but don't overlook others. I've had friends who work in service industries, waitresses, front desk staff at hotels and in sales and, according to them, a smile can be fake and just pulled out to get a bigger tip or to get someone to be less belligerent.

Do listen for pitch. Again, this can be valuable, but only in context. If you listen closely enough you can often hear when someone is nervous. The only problem is that may just be the normal way that they talk. Or they may be nervous indeed, just about something that has nothing to do with work. So you should listen, but when you think you've come across something that has merit, seek to find additional evidence to support, or challenge, your theory.

Do look for inconsistencies. Okay, this one proves that I watched "Lie to Me." The early episodes often pointed to inconsistencies between what someone said and how they physically reacted. Some examples where when someone was very upset but then smiled. Or when someone said one thing, but their body language said something totally different.

Use these tips and you'll be able to pick up clues from people's subtle movements, not just when they faint at work.

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, "The Boss's Survival Guide." If you have a question for Bob, contact him via

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"Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way."

–General George Patton

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

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