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Reading body language

Gauging a participant’s level of interest, excitement, temperament, and attitude can be determined by watching how someone holds himself or herself. Our bodies reveal many pieces of information about what’s going on internally. If you take in the signals and react with the proper nonverbal and verbal cues, you can help bring in a participant who has checked out from the session or regulate one who is overeager. Any signal that you pick up should not be taken on its own, but rather in the full context of other body language cues to properly understand what the participant is saying.

Common stances

People naturally take certain positions when they get excited, agitated, or anxious. These stances are instinctual and go unnoticed when we reposition ourselves unconsciously to react to our surroundings. It’s important to know a few of the key stances that people might take during a session. This listing isn’t all-encompassing, and in some cases a particular stance may not mean what you think it does. For example, a participant might be seated with arms crossed and the chin tucked into the chest. Overall, this is a very closed stance; however, if the temperature in the room is hovering around 65 degrees it could be that the participant just happens to be cold. However, the following stances are useful guidelines if you keep alert for cues that identify the exceptions.


Hands on hips

Participants with their hands on their hips are ready for action, and that action can be positive or negative. This position is one we learn in childhood as a means to assert ourselves. It’s a way to begin to show our independence. By the time we reach adulthood, placing our hands on our hips shows that we’re ready to do something and we increase our personal space to ensure that no one tries to get in our way. When it’s time to throw the control of the session back to the participants, look for those who are in this position. Their energy and passion can be infectious for the other members of the group.


Thumbs tucked into pants

Sometimes known as the “cowboy stance,” this position comes into play when one participant is sizing up another, or even you. By nature, it puts a participant into an aggressive position. This could be good or bad, depending on the other signals the participant is giving off. A participant whose thumbs are tucked in could mean that they’re about to pounce on another participant, and you need to be prepared to protect the other participant or defuse the situation.


Hands on head

In some sessions, participants are required to sit at a conference table or around a room and they’re able to stand up only when they “have the floor.” A participant who leans back and with both hands on the back of the head is one who’s ready to get up and take the floor. The participant is showing you a level of confidence and readiness that you need to be ready to react to and either support or suppress depending on the participant. This participant is ready to take a turn, and simply waiting for the current speaker to wrap up so they can easily stand up and take over.


Leaning forward while sitting

Participants can easily get excited and passionate during a session. Someone who is seated when this happens will quickly get on the edge of the seat. This tells you that the participant is done sitting and being a bystander. That person is ready to jump in and add some excitement to the conversation and contribute to the session. This level of energy can be used as a catalyst to get other participants engaged and excited.

The number of body stances a participant can take are numerous, and some tell more of a story than others. Having a mental catalog of stances and their meanings can help you direct the flow and energy of a session to a greater degree.

Positive and negative arms

The motion and position of a person’s arms provides a lot of insight into their mental and emotional state. The arms communicate if a person is feeling threatened, agreeable, or open to suggestion. One of the most important positions of arms is if they are positioned in a closed or open fashion. For instance, whether his arms are crossed across the chest versus relaxed and down at his sides.

A closed position is the body’s attempt to protect itself from danger. This danger could be physical or emotional, and the participant is trying to defend either himself or his ideas. Changing to open arms suggest that a participant is becoming more agreeable to the idea being presented. If a participant does enter into a closed position, there are several tricks that get them to open up again and engage in the conversation rather than remaining removed from it.

One technique is to get participants to do something with their hands. This could be sketching out an idea on a piece of paper, writing down notes on a diagram on the whiteboard, or looking something up on a computer. The earlier you can break the closed position, the quicker the participants become active contributors again.

Occasionally, participants will use an object to protect themselves rather than their arms. Grabbing a clipboard, coffee cup, notepad, or even a laptop is an effort to place a barrier between the participant and the topic, idea, or suggestion that is felt to be attacking them. It’s important that you notice when these barriers get put up. Removing the barrier can be easy, if caught early and if participants are given something to do that allows them to voice their disagreement or discomfort in a productive way. One technique would be to suggest that they get up and contribute to a shared working space like a whiteboard.

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