I recently had the opportunity to hear a fascinating discussion on “Deaf Culture in America.” The speaker shared a from-the-heart story about growing up as the talking, hearing child of two deaf parents (also known as a CODA – child of a deaf adult, apparently).

Spoken English was his second language. Up until the age of five, all he knew was sign language. He described the moment, at the young age of three or four, when he realized something was different about his communications with his parents – “I remember watching my mom and dad get into an argument. I knew what they were saying through their signs, but at that young age I also realized that I needed to focus on their expressions, and that their nonverbal language was key to understanding the whole story of what they were saying.” He went on to describe how throughout his childhood and adult life, body language and nonverbal communication became a core element of his communication with his parents. As an adult, this skill of reading people has continued to be a strength for him in his professional life. 

His story was fascinating to me, particularly because in our work at Bates, non-verbal communication is a skill we coach clients on when they’re delivering presentations or speeches – in our coaching program and Speak Like a CEO Boot Camps. Eye contact with the audience, vocal inflection, posture, hand movements.....all critical non-verbal cues that can make an impact on your audience – whether it’s in acting out a story, emphasizing particular points, or just exuding overall confidence.

While most leaders understand the importance of these non-verbal cues in a formal presentation setting, listening to this individual’s story got me thinking about how important non-verbal communication is in everyday leadership.

I'll never forget a client of ours who came to us for coaching. She was a bright, savvy leader of a large team at a financial services company. Early in the coaching program, she mentioned that she didn't feel her messages or mandates were resonating with employees. They weren't motivated. She couldn't figure out why - she spent hours every week holding meetings and sending written communications. But when the coach went through the 360 process and interviewed some of her staff, though, we found something startling - employees remarked that she tended to hunker down, in her office, slouched behind the computer, furiously typing away. When someone tried to initiate conversation, she stayed seated behind her desk, didn't make eye contact, and mumbled replies. Employees got the sense that she was overstressed, overworked, and even that something was concerning her. More than that, a few of them remarked that her behaviors made her seem unapproachable and even rude.

The client was startled when we revealed these insights. She hadn't even realized she was sending these messages. On a daily basis, her go-to position of slouching behind the desk, eyes glued to the computer was making a significant impact on her staff's opinion of her. She thought it was important to get her work done. She was missing the mark in leading her team.

Employees are often like the "CODA" speaker was as a little child – looking to their leaders for the non-verbal cues that really tell them what’s happening. Are leaders demonstrating confidence - through not just their spoken words about how the company is doing, but their non-verbal cues about it? Can employees feel the confidence?

Long ago we came across a study that said 55% of communication is non-verbal. We focus so much of our time and energy on preparing spoken remarks, written memos, emails and other communications to engage employees and motivate them to achieve the goals of the business. But are you communicating those same sentiments in your everyday non-verbal cues? In employee engagement, these non-verbal cues can be the difference between truly motivating employees to carry out your strategy, versus simply telling them to. And the impact can be dramatic for your business.

We all know the basic principles of non-verbal communication – but I’m challenging myself- and I’ll challenge you – to put more effort into focusing on them in everyday settings. 

Post by Meredith Courtney, Director of Marketing

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