How interpreting body language can help PMs communicate better with stakeholders

by Sylvie Edwards
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Project managers (PMs) deal with all types and forms of stakeholders involved in particular projects, all in it for different and varying goals or objectives. It becomes important for a good PM to identify and understand these goals as early as possible, so we don’t miss out on opportunities. The way to better understand our stakeholders is to have some fundamental understanding of body language. What are they really telling us?

I am often asked by students or clients to give them a suggestion for any additional learning or training that can provide an edge for someone working in this profession and while there are a great number of skills, tools, and techniques one can acquire; my two usual answers are facilitation skills and a better understanding of body language.

Facilitation skills are easy to explain and make a lot of sense. In the course of a PM’s, life there will be more occasions to use facilitation skills than one can count on all their fingers and toes. It is a key set of skills that allow a PM to not only feel more confident during a meeting or a presentation, but it assists in also being more objective when dealing with solutions to a project’s problems. Facilitation allows you to distance yourself while remaining objective so that you can better concentrate on the issue at hand.

So why the body language knowledge?

Gaining skills in being able to read and decipher body language is what can differentiate a good PM from a great PM. Every individual through their movements, facial expressions, and positioning are communicating with the rest of the world. This communication is primarily silent in its nature but can carry a heavy message but more importantly a contradictory one to the one being voiced.

I have had the opportunity to meet several individuals, over the years, who have mastered this communication form and who for most seem to be more mind readers than PMs.

Let’s provide an everyday example to give you some context of the importance of body language.

Imagine yourself in a stakeholder meeting where it is expected that issues will be solved and discussed openly. Everyone invited has worked hard to come up with solutions and recommendations to several issues that have been plaguing your project. You will sit while everyone has an opinion and ensure that we have a polite, yet heated discussion. For most of the meetings, the conversations go back and forth, and then they become more one-sided. A decision is finally reached, but something doesn’t sit well with you. Most of the stakeholders have stopped really contributing in favor of the sponsor who has taken over and pushing his resolution as the solution to be used. Who really wants to take on the sponsor during a meeting?

A bit of body language knowledge would more than likely yield some information to assist in guiding your next steps. You look closer at the participants and notice:

  • Hands are clenched into fists
  • Arms are crossed over chests
  • Eyes are not on the speaker but going around the room in search of a friendly supporter
  • Discussions, at first lively, have become short and curt
  • One person is actively doodling
  • One person is taping their pen on a notepad

Recognize these signs?

You should as these are sure signs that you have lost these participants. The sponsor has managed to be the center of attention and attention that is not appreciated by most. You can also tell that most people also believe that there is no point in continuing the debate as the sponsor is believed to have “won.”

Body language, according to Albert Mehrabian, “supports the meaning of a conversation by about 55% or more” One cannot simply use words, recognizing if people understand and are on point with the discussion is very much what body language is all about.


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