Saying a Lot…Without Saying a Thing

Non-verbal communication is a vital technique in active listening. When done well, it can be the key to a thoroughly positive conversation or meeting. However, when done poorly, non-verbal communication can blow up everything, resulting in nonproductivity, mistrust and, yes (for those of you who in special education), possibly even a due process filing!

Ever been in a meeting where someone is silently but obviously shaking his or her head in disgust? What about the people texting or checking e-mail during the presentation of results from an important report? These are examples of inappropriate non-verbal communication. The same is true for slouching, making faces, crossing arms, and looks of confusion or disgruntlement. These may be inaudible – and even unintentional – but they sure can be loud (in their own way) and definitely discouraging, if not damaging.

On the other hand, appropriate non-verbal communication allows the speaker and other participants in a meeting to know they are being heard, appreciated, encouraged, etc. Examples can include head nods, note-taking, eye contact, and alert posture. Ever been at I.E.P. team meetings where participants (notably parents) share something undoubtedly difficult to talk about, perhaps something that makes them emotional? What non-verbal communication did you use to let them know you were listening to them? For that matter, think about how you know that YOU are being heard. What non-verbal communication do you want to see and feel from others?

Now That Nothing’s Been Said… What to Do?

It is important to be conscious of both the signals you send (as in conveying as much support and inclusion as possible) as well as those you receive. In the latter case – when you may be on the wrong end of inappropriate non-verbal communication – you should be prepared with techniques to “safely” defuse or reverse the situation before the meeting is undermined. Establish an environment in which it’s okay to voice a question or concern. It’s all about creating a sense of trust and using positive communication skills. In a professional way, call out the elephant in the room. Examples:

• “Chris, I notice you are texting. Need to take a break?”
• “Alex, by your head shaking, it seems we may not be in agreement. So I would like to pause and check in on your concerns.”
• “Terry, I can tell by that quizzical look, there may be some confusion. Can I clarify something for you?”

Bottom line: Have the confidence and ready techniques to check in with that person. And mind your body language when you do! Want to discuss a specific situation? Feel free to contact me directly at