Posted by: Melissa De Lyser | November 1, 2013

De Lyser Week 5: Nonverbal communication

Pen clicking.  Texting. Checking email. Watching the clock.

Whenever I’m asked to chair a committee, I always watch for this kind of nonverbal communication.  Nonverbal communication like this is one of the best ways to determine the level of engagement among committee members.  It’s interesting that when I think of nonverbal communication, I immediately associate it with disengagement.  Rarely do I think of nonverbal communication in a group setting as a positive.

Many forms of nonverbal communication are positive. Nodding in agreement.  Leaning forward. Gesturing. All of these things also happen in committee meetings, but perceptions of this type of positive engagement are often offset by those exhibiting disengaged nonverbal communication. 

The key, I think, is to focus on the group as a whole.   Is only one person’s nonverbal communication indicating disengagement?  Is the nonverbal behavior isolated or part of a pattern?  In what context is are nonverbal communications, positive or negative, being exhibited? Analyzing these elements of nonverbal communication could provide the means to increase group engagement.


  1. Thank you for the great comments and questions about engagement, Melissa. It’s important to watch for the nonverbal queues in a meeting to determine what is broken. It can take time to figure out if the incident is isolated to one person on one day, or an indication of a bigger problem within the group.

    Although the observations are focused on board meetings in the blog post above, I think the same rules apply to the workplace too. I’d like to hear how about our colleagues’ experiences.

    Whether you manage people or work as a peer; whether you are currently employed or not, I’d like to know how you address bad employee behavior in meetings— and even outside of meetings.

    Have you received helpful management training or had a boss or mentor that guided you to lead people to give their best? I’ve picked up good tips from PRSA trainings, but would love to hear from you. What are your most reliable practices to get people to pull together for the greater good of the organization?

  2. What interested me about your post was that you made the assumption that the people who were performing these nonverbal cues were not engaged in the meeting. While that could very well be true, how does that affect your engagement with them in that meeting and in future meetings? Are they pigeon-holed into role and unable to get out of it?

    I think it’s also difficult for people to be keenly aware of their nonverbal cues 24 hours per day. A person who chews gum or leans back in their chair during a meeting may be perceived a couple of different ways by different people. A lot of this comes down to whether they’re communicating intentionally or unintentionally. That being said, is it possible for a person to not communicate?

    Communications theorist (among other things) Paul Watzlawick talked about that idea. One of his collaborators said that not all non-verbal behaviors are communicative. She suggested that in the absence of a sender-receiver relationship and the intentional use of a shared code, we should describe nonverbal behavior as informative rather than communicative. What do you think?

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