Albert Mehrabian, renowned engineer and psychologist documented and developed in his doctorate research (in the early 1960s) a theory that in order to get the full meaning from a conversation one has to interpret body language. Body language accounts for approximately 55% of all communications exchanges. As a PM, I have never had or seen a choice for a communications class that deals uniquely with body language. Why so little on something so important? Learning of body language’s intricate details and nuances is often left to the individual to figure out or in most cases not. I contend that in order to be more effective, Project Managers should really open themselves up to this key aspect of communications.
Any project management professional who is studying or has studied for their PMP® exam or taken a communications class would recall that there are three components to a face to face conversation: the words (linguistics), the paralinguistic aspects (such as tone, volume, speed…) and the body or nonverbal language. Each of these was the subject of Albert Mehrabian’s study, his theory has been used and abused over the years. It still remains that body or nonverbal language plays a crucial role in our everyday conversations. Together all three items contribute to our understanding of the message provided to us by the originator or sender of that message. In a previous article, I covered the responsibilities of both sender and receiver in the communication process or as I see it this “dance” that is the exchange of information between individuals.
What I would like to discuss more is the fact that PMs don’t spend enough time paying attention to or learning how to recognize some of the key elements of body language. Without this ability, a PM is at a great disadvantage in the communications process.
This is not a perfect science and variations will exist from individual to individual, but a bit of knowledge of the common behaviors in this area can be easy to obtain and invaluable in our everyday interactions with our stakeholders.
So where does one start?
First and foremost, learning and appreciating body language starts with the observation of human behavior around you. Just sitting in a meeting and paying close attention to people’s interactions, the position of the body, movement of arms, expressions on faces, and use of space. These are all basic areas in which body language tells you tons about an individual.
To practice this, I will often sit at my favorite Starbucks location, and people watch. You can tell a lot from a frown, a glance or a sigh. Get used to picking up the body language signs in order to know when to approach people. I do this too. I will do a first run over to a Sponsor’s office, look at how he or she is behaving and decide if it is or not the time to discuss certain topics.
The second great source of information on this is via “YouTube” or readily available literature. There is a lot of material on this topic, and you need to know your sources well in order for them to be trusted. Be a bit wary of “dating” advice surrounding body language. You need to keep to advice that is connected to professional or work behavior patterns. People that I trust in this area are Allan Pease, Joe Navarro (ex-FBI profiler) and Mark Bowden (for those Canadian in the audience). You do have to watch Allan Pease in one of his videos discussing handshakes, it is a must. Body language has even made it in some of our favorite televisions shows (Lie to me, CSI, FBI…) because of the importance it has in making us get to the true meaning of a conversation faster or sometimes at all.
So, for those new PMs or not so new ones that want to work at acquiring a new skill and get a bit of an edge in communication, I would suggest that you brush up or start reading and learning more about the body or nonverbal language. As I said before, it is not a perfect science, and there are often more factors at play than one can figure out, but it is an area of expertise that very few people intentionally pursue.
Being good at this will give you a skill that you can transfer to every area of your life.
Sylvie Edwards, PMP, MCPM, STDC, CMP, FPMAC has 25 years of project management experience spanning various industries and is the owner of SRE Solutions, catering to clients in need of project management course development, education, project risk management, PMO setup/evaluation or recovery services. She has worked with one of the top five consulting firm, where she led projects in the information technology, banking, government, and securities sectors as well as being a manager in the risk management practice. Sylvie writes about risk management, communication, and PMO.