Episode 152 – Body language – Unlocking the Silent Advantage

Episode #152
Original Air Date: 05.02.2022

45 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Jeff Baird

Is your body language negatively impacting your project teams? Your body language expresses vast amounts of information – even more than the words you speak. Body language expert Jeff Baird explains the benefits of power body language, and describes how we can come across as confident and persuasive. Jeff shows us what to look for when someone is speaking to give clues on how they’re feeling and how they’re receiving our message. Listen in as he shares some handy tips to incorporate into our non-verbal communication.

If you are pitching a project or an idea and you want to get positive feedback, what are some actions you could apply to gain approval? Jeff explains how we don’t always make decisions based off facts and data; rather, we let our emotions and our gut feelings drive our decisions. In the challenges of remote work, hear some tips on how we can improve our presence while on a phone or video meeting, and how we can discern body language from a virtual perspective. Also in this episode, Jeff briefly runs through the “3 Shuns of Workplace Breakdowns” and how we can avoid these communication pitfalls.

Jeff Baird has been in data analytics for almost 20 years. But over the years he has found that facts & numbers aren’t enough to be able to persuade and influence. How we present ourselves and our message matters. With 60-93% of our communication being nonverbal, Jeff has studied the science of body language to learn what makes people tick. He’s a keynote speaker, certified body language trainer (who knew that was a thing), and a certified 'Big 5 Personalities' trainer (probably worth a google).

Learn More About Our Course by Jeff Baird: ATTRACTING TOP TALENT: FIRST CONTACT

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

"There’s not good or bad body language.  There’s just how it’s going to be perceived in the eyes of the other person.  ...There’s what we’re doing with our body language and how people are perceiving us ...  And then there’s all the nonverbal signals that they’re sending back to us, too, that can give us clues as to how they feel." 

- Jeff Baird

"...if we can know what to look for when someone’s speaking, then we’ll have ideas on how they’re feeling and how they’re receiving the message.  And then we can be more deliberate in our communication to make sure that we’re sending the right kinds of messages that we want."

- Jeff Baird

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The podcast by project managers for project managers.  Is your body language negatively impacting your project teams? Body language expert Jeff Baird shares some handy tips to incorporate into our non-verbal communication. Hear how we can tap into vast amounts of information from body language messages, and how to harness body language to come across as confident and persuasive.

Table of Contents

02:42 … Meet Jeff
02:57 … Combining the IT Data World and Body Language
06:38 … Our Ability to Influence People
09:01 … What is our Brain Doing when We Meet Someone?
12:02 … How Can We be Deliberate with Our Body Language?
14:55 … Power Body Language
17:34 … Nonverbal “Hacks” We Can Use
21:59 … The “Head Tilt” and the “Smile”
23:43 … Body Language and Virtual Meetings
28:27 … Improving Phone Presence
30:26 … The 3 “Shuns” of Workplace Breakdowns
35:42 … Creating a Safe Environment
37:50 … Detecting Lies
43:33 … Contact Jeff
43:50 … Closing

JEFF BAIRD:  There’s not good or bad body language.  There’s just how it’s going to be perceived in the eyes of the other person.  And as a side note, there’s two sides to this coin, too.  There’s what we’re doing with our body language and how people are perceiving us and how willing they are to listen to us.  And then there’s all the nonverbal signals that they’re sending back to us, too, that can give us clues as to how they feel.  And so there’s not good or bad body language.  I just want to help people to be congruent so that when they say something their body language is going to match that because oftentimes what happens is if those are not congruent, we’ll tend to believe what we see in body language over what they’re telling us with their words.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and joining me is Bill Yates.  We’re so glad you’re joining us.  If you like what you hear, please visit us at Velociteach.com where you can leave a comment on our Manage This Podcast page.  We know you’re also looking for opportunities to acquire PDUs, your Professional Development Units, towards recertifications.  And you can still claim PDUs for all our podcast episodes.  If you take a listen at the end of the show, we’ll give you advice on how to do that.

Our guest today is Jeff Baird.  He has been in data analytics for almost 20 years, but over the years he has found that facts and numbers aren’t always enough to be able to persuade and influence, and how we present ourselves and our message really matters.  He studied the science of body language to learn what makes people tick.  Jeff is a keynote speaker, a certified body language trainer – I found out that that was a thing – and a certified Big 5 Personalities trainer.  Jeff has also done a course with us.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  Jeff partnered with us to build out a one-hour course in InSite, which is our mobile learning platform.  And the course is called “Attracting Top Talent:  First Contact.”  This is so pertinent today.  It’s difficult to find good people for our teams.  And there’s more emphasis on hiring and recruiting than ever.  Jeff just has terrific advice in this one-hour course about how to attract top talent.  What are the steps that we can take to be more successful as we’re recruiting and interviewing people?  And to be honest with you, too, you can flip it. 

I think, from a standpoint of someone who’s looking for a job, this is a great thing to look into, as well.  This course will give you advice.  What is the employer looking for, and what should my expectations be?  So we’re delighted to be talking with him about this area of communication.  And I just think it’s exciting to have him join us, give us tips, and raise our awareness for this area of communication.

Meet Jeff

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Jeff.  Welcome to Manage This.

JEFF BAIRD:  Good morning.

WENDY GROUNDS:  We’re so glad that you’re here with us today.  It’s been a long time coming.  We should have done a podcast with you a long time ago.

BILL YATES:  I know, this is great to finally have him in the room with us.  Verbally, anyway.

Combining the IT Data World and Body Language

WENDY GROUNDS:  Verbally in the room with us, yeah.  Just to connect the dots, so your career began in the IT data world?  And then you ended up in body language training.  That’s a big jump.  How did you do that?

JEFF BAIRD:  Yeah, so I’ve been in IT for – I’m going to feel old now, but it’s been at least 20 years now.  And most of that time has been in data.  So much of my focus has been in data warehousing business intelligence.  It’s all around trying to provide good information to decision-makers so they can make good decisions on what direction to go with the company or the project.  And what I somewhat reluctantly realized as a data person I’d like to think that it is just that simple, that I could just provide some numbers to somebody, and then they’ll make the right decision.

But what I was somewhat reluctantly discovering is that we don’t make decisions based off facts and data as much as I’d like to think.  Like we evaluate and make decisions more off our emotions and our gut feel than sometimes the facts.  And this is something that sales and marketing people have known for years.  But it’s a new realization for people that are in IT.

But the data industry’s starting to clue in on this.  I went to some data analytics conferences not too long back, and they were starting to do sessions on how to invoke emotions with your data visualizations and how to do data storytelling.  And there was one presentation in particular that had a slide that said, if a decision-maker is given some data, given some facts, but their gut feel said something different, then 90% of the time they’re going to go with their gut feel. 

BILL YATES:  Wow.  Okay.

JEFF BAIRD:  That’s a huge number.  And what’s funny is I’ll show that slide to other data professionals, and it’s common for them to say, no, that can’t be right. 


JEFF BAIRD:  Not realizing that I just gave them data, but their gut said something different.  So none of us are immune from it.  And it’s not that we don’t make fact-based decisions.  We want to make informed decisions.  But we can’t dismiss this other part that goes into human decision-making.  We have to understand what’s going into the gut feel if we want to be able to influence and persuade, to lead and guide people, whether it’s a company or a team or a project.  We have to be able to understand that part.

And so I started studying that.  I started studying neuroscience and psychology in parallel to my data career in an effort to kind of fix myself, to try to be more effective at my own game.  And one of the areas that affects our psychology and neuroscience and really moves the needle pretty significantly, is body language because so much of our assessment of a person and things associated with them is based on what we see in their nonverbals.  But we make these snap decisions about what we think about a person, how much we trust them, how competent they appear.  And then that affects our willingness to listen to them.

And so I started studying that and had an opportunity to apply to be in this pilot program to become a body language trainer.  I didn’t know that was a thing at the time.  But I threw my hat in the ring, not really expecting to get accepted to it because they were taking applicants from around the world, and they were only going to take 10 people.  But I got the word back that I got accepted to it and went to about four to five months of training to become a certified body language trainer.

And so I’ve been doing that kind of in parallel to my data career.  I’m still in data.  I’m currently a Director of Data and Analytics Engineering.  But complementing it hopefully with this other piece so that I can be more effective in my own career and as I’m leading teams and as we’re trying to help influence the direction that companies go.

BILL YATES:  So you’re really engaging the right and left sides of your brain with what you do day to day.


BILL YATES:  That’s intriguing.

JEFF BAIRD:  At least trying.  I’m still a work in progress, but trying to find that balance in my life.  Balance is important; right?

Our Ability to Influence People

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah.  I like that it complements with your career.  So you’re still in this IT data world.  You’re still working in that environment.  But you’re complementing it, so you’re able to speak from both sides.  So this leads us to understanding people.  It’s an important life skill.  A lot of us are not as good at it as we think we should be or as we could  be.  We’re just not taught how to influence people, how to get people to listen to ideas.  What traits affect our ability to do that?  How can we best approach people?

JEFF BAIRD:  I like to think of what my goal is with the interaction.  There’s not good or bad body language.  There’s just how it’s going to be perceived in the eyes of the other person.  And as a side note, there’s two sides to this coin, too.  There’s what we’re doing with our body language and how people are perceiving us and how willing they are to listen to us.  And then there’s all the nonverbal signals that they’re sending back to us, too, that can give us clues as to how they feel. 

And so there’s not good or bad body language.  I just want to help people to be congruent so that when they say something their body language is going to match that because oftentimes what happens is if those are not congruent, we’ll tend to believe what we see in body language over what they’re telling us with their words.

So if I come home from work and my wife’s having a bad day, she may verbally tell me everything’s fine.  But if I’m seeing that it’s not, if the nonverbals are sitting there telling a different story, then what am I going to believe?  We tend to believe what we see over what people are saying.  And so the goal is congruency.  So usually in the workplace and on projects in a company, we’re wanting to foster an environment of trust, collaboration, influence.  And so a lot of the body language tips we’re going to talk about are going to help foster that.  It’s going to help make sure that instead of putting someone on the defensive, which we’ve all seen happen in meetings, to make sure that it’s an open place where people can collaborate, especially when there’s disagreement.

That’s where it’s going to be especially important. The art of being able to disagree, but still keeping it a safe place for the disagreement and keeping it a safe place for somebody to speak their mind and give their opinion, which is especially difficult for introverts, as well.  You can have a lot of extroverts or a lot of alpha personalities in a room that don’t have a problem vocalizing their opinion.  But we want a safe place for everybody to be able to contribute because that’s where we’re going to get all the different perspectives, and in the end we’ll come to hopefully a better conclusion and outcome.

What is Our Brain Doing When We Meet Someone?

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  Jeff, I’m going to quote you.  You talked about the nonverbal signals that we send, you know, we’re picking them up, like you gave the illustration of coming home, and your wife says one thing, but your eyes tell you something different.  One of your quotes is, “In a 30-minute conversation, two people will send about 800 nonverbal signals back and forth.”  That’s amazing.  There’s so much communication that’s going on that does not involve the words coming out of my mouth, 800 in a 30-minute conversation.

JEFF BAIRD:  Right.  Vast amount of information that, as you pointed out we don’t really learn how to tap into that.  So if we can know what to look for when someone’s speaking, then we’ll have ideas on how they’re feeling and how they’re receiving the message.  And then we can be more deliberate in our communication to make sure that we’re sending the right kinds of messages that we want.

BILL YATES:  So with that in mind, stepping back to this next question, which is what is our brain doing when we meet someone?  There’s obviously a lot of things going on.  What’s our brain doing?

JEFF BAIRD:  Right.  Our brain, we’re constantly being bombarded by input, things that we’re seeing in our world, things that we hear, memories, all these sensations we’re just getting bombarded with.  And our brains can’t process all of it simultaneously.  So we’ll end up having to focus on just one or two things at a time.  And our brain is really good at making shortcuts, shortcut decisions because we just don’t have time often to go through data analysis; right?  I’d love if we could just go through all these different steps and do some project plans and decide if we’re going to be waterfall or scrum and come out with plans for it.  But that’s not reality.  We have to make decisions quickly.  This has pros and cons.  The con side of it is when we start having prejudices and biases that aren’t justified.

So this is part of the assessment that our brain is trying to do when we meet somebody.  It’s making these shortcut decisions and connections.  And there’s many things that can influence that opinion, and that can be our own background and our experiences, things that we’ve experienced in our lives that are coloring the way that we’re perceiving things.  But a lot of it is also based in primitive parts of our brains, in the reptile brain and the limbic system, over eons of time has learned that it needs to do certain things to make sure it’s safe.  And so one of the very first things that happens when we meet someone is an assessment on can I trust this person, and are they safe.

The primitive parts of our brain are faster acting than our more evolved neocortex.  It has to be faster because if I’m going to step out on the street here and a bus is about to hit me, again, I don’t have time to assess and to plan.  I have to just react.  But because it’s so fast, that’s probably the part that is most crucial when we first meet somebody, to send the message that you can trust me, I’m a friend, not someone that you have to be concerned about.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  Yeah, the amygdala is a powerful tool, and it keeps us from getting hit by buses.  But sometimes I can make a snap judgment that I realize later, eh, maybe I didn’t take in all the data on that one.



How Can We be Deliberate with Our Body Language? 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Jeff, you did an excellent course for us at Velociteach, an InSite course on “Attracting Top Talent:  First Contact.”  And one of the things I wanted to ask you about was exhibiting nonverbal cues.  Now, what’s interesting to me is that these nonverbal cues that people are giving off is across all demographics.  You know, people might be different with certain gestures in their culture, or certain forms of speech in their culture.  But these cues that we’re giving off in body language, it’s across the board, that anybody’s giving really the same type of language almost.  You have this chapter on how we can send the messages we want based on these nonverbal cues.  How can we be deliberate with our body language?  How can we just leverage that body language to make sure that we’re perceived in a positive light?

JEFF BAIRD:  So the first thing is to be aware of what we’re doing with our body language.  That’s most of the effort.  Because once again, since we aren’t taught it, we aren’t thinking about it as much.  So just thinking about it and being aware that my body language is affecting how people are perceiving me, that’s most of the battle because what’s nice, too, is that a lot of this, if you stop and think about it, is pretty intuitive.  If you want to know what kinds of body language gestures bother you, you can just observe as you’re interacting with people.

If you notice that I don’t really like this person very much, or I don’t really trust this person, you might make a note of that and see what are they doing with their nonverbals that might be communicating to that.  Are they doing expressions that make them come across as conceited or arrogant?  Or are they doing some body language gestures that make them look like they’re angry or defensive?  Are they doing nervous gestures that show that they’re not really confident in what they say?  You can start connecting those dots because our brains are trained to watch for this stuff, if we can just consciously identify it, articulate it, and then we can be like, okay, that’s what I want to learn from this.

BILL YATES:  That awareness is so key.  And I love the point that you’ve already made about congruency because I think sometimes you’ll come across, I can think of examples in my past where a project team, we would work with a client, and we’d step away from working with a specific client member.  And we’d be on the plane trip home or be back in the office, and we’d have a pretty consistent impression of that person.  Either we’d like the person, somebody we enjoyed hanging out with, or we didn’t.

You know, it’s not like they tried to pull a gun on us or anything like that.  It’s like we were looking for an inconsistency, both in terms of how they treat us with respect or not when we’re working with them, and making sure their body language matches who they say they are.  You know, it’s almost like you’re saying one thing, but you’re showing me something different.  And something in my brain is raising a flag about that.  And I just simply don’t trust you as much as I would this other person on the team or this other client because of that, because of that inconsistency.

JEFF BAIRD:  Absolutely.  It erodes trust when you don’t have that congruency, absolutely.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

Power Body Language

WENDY GROUNDS:  What is power body language?  For example, how can we come across as confident when trying to persuade others to see our way, or get what we want in a project?

JEFF BAIRD:  So power body language is something that’s natural that we do when we feel victorious, and when we feel confident and happy.  So if you watch the Winter Olympics, you look at the winners, and it doesn’t matter what country they’re from.  Doesn’t even matter if they’re born blind, you’ll see the same kinds of body language when they’re victorious.  It’ll be expansive body language, shoulders back.  They’re taking up space.  Their head is up.  Oftentimes they’re raising their hands above their heads.  And every time I watch a sporting event or the Olympics, I watch for that because it’s surprisingly consistent.

The opposite of that is true, too.  And when we are defeated, you see the opposite.  You see them start to shrink in their body language, start taking up less space.  They bring their arms in closer to their torso.  They roll their shoulders forward.  That’s natural when we have confidence, victory, versus defeat or low confidence. And so if we want to convey confidence, then we want to be more expansive, shoulders back, good posture.  Posture’s something I’ve always struggled with.  But to have good posture and to keep your arms open and out, with your head high.  Now, of course everything in this is a balancing act.  You don’t want to go into every project meeting…

BILL YATES:  Victory.

JEFF BAIRD:  Victory pose.


JEFF BAIRD:  It’s a balance.  And a good sweet spot in there is just to be open with your body language.  Your shoulders are back, your hands are open and unfolded, and your head is high.  Things like that are going to be enough to say that this person is confident and competent in what they’re doing.  And then when you do have a victory on the project, then you let loose with some body language.  And when we’re nervous, we tend to do the opposite.  I’ve felt myself doing this in job interviews.  When you’re nervous, get a little fight-or-flight.  You’ll feel yourself start to shrink.  So if you’re in a meeting that’s a little tense, or you’re a little nervous, then be aware of that and observe if you start to shrink and just remind yourself gently that, okay, I’m going to keep open, keep my shoulders back.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  It’s funny to me, too.  It’s like just at a basic level the sense of feeling when I’m confident I’m more positive, outgoing, the future looks bright kind of a thing.  When I’m nervous, when I’m shrinking physically, I’m more negative.  I’m more pessimistic.  I’m not as fun to be around.  It’s not the best time to ask me to be in a creative session because my brain’s not there.  So yeah, there’s a lot of truth to that.  I think of the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy and some of the research that they’ve done in that area, as well.

Nonverbal “Hacks” We Can Use

So we want to go into some more specific practical steps, too.  Walk us through some nonverbal steps.  You may think of these as nonverbal hacks to just help us be aware, beyond good posture and showing confidence physically and being in the room without trying to intimidate, but just being positive.  What are some other things that we can do?

JEFF BAIRD:  So where I like to focus some tips, too, is things that we can easily change.  Some of this stuff is difficult.  Like there’s research around blinking your eyes and what that could possibly mean.  But none of us are going to be very good at controlling how many times we’re blinking.  So I want things  that we can try right away, see if it’s having a positive improvement, and then turn it into a habit.  One of the ones that I like to talk about in speeches and trainings often is what we do with our hands.

Now, there’s a couple layers to this.  But the first is when we first meet somebody, and our brain is trying to make that decision on if we trust them or not, one of the first things it’s going to notice is our hands.  This is very rooted in that primitive part of the brain that’s trying to assess this for a risk or not. 

So it’s going to look at the hands, see if I’m holding a weapon, if I have a fist.  That might indicate anger.  It’s going to watch for the hands.  And if it can see the hands and see that there’s no tension or weapon, it’s going to relax a little bit, and there’s going to be a little more trust.  Whereas if it can’t see my hands, then it’s always going to wonder just a little bit what are you doing with your hands?  Why can’t I see it?  And so as a general principle we want to try to keep our hands visible.

Now, in a virtual world we have to balance that; right?  You don’t have to be on all the time with all of these tips.  You just do the best you can with the environment that you’re in.  If it’s a critical meeting, then that’s when I’d really want to make sure that I’m applying some of these rules.  I’ll try to position the camera where people can see my hands so that they can see those and help boost trust.  So usually the follow-up question with that, though, is what am I supposed to do with my hands?  Right?  If you’ve seen “Talladega Nights,” there’s that part where he’s getting interviewed on TV, and he says, “I don’t know what to do with my hands,” and keeps awkwardly drifting up into the camera.

And we could spend a lot of time on different hand gestures and what they mean.  There was a TED Talk from Allan Pease, you can check that out on YouTube, that had an interesting experiment with his audience.  And this is something that I’ll repeat when I’m doing speeches.  He invited the audience to do something three times.  And each time he had the exact same verbal content, and he tried to keep his nonverbals the same.  But each time he would just change what he did with his hands, the orientation of his hands.  And even from watching the TED Talk and when I do it with live groups of people, it feels different with each time he asks.

The first time that he asks, he asks with his palms up, open palms.  And he asks them to do something silly like to have them move around in the audience to different places.  And then he asks the people, how do you feel?  How do you feel about what I just asked you to do?  And most people are fine with it because he’s using a gesture that is friendly.  It’s showing trust.  I’m exposing a vulnerable area on my wrist, and I have open palms.  And so that’s a message to the other person that I trust you, and they in turn begin to trust you back more.  You’ll even see this in the animal kingdom some, like a primate would do an open palm gesture.

So then when he asks again the second time, this time he turns his palms down and asks how people feel about that.  And with the palms down, it starts to feel more condescending.  Feels more like a command that he’s giving them, or a directive.  And so now a lot of the people are starting to resist.  Then the third time he asks, he asks with an index finger pointing at the people.  And this time the people are really resisting.  They’re starting to think all sorts of nasty things about him probably.  And they are most likely not going to do what he asks.  This has been repeated enough to have some numbers behind it.  And I don’t know if I have the exact numbers in mind.

But with the open palm, I believe 84% of the people were willing to do what they were being asked to do.  That’s a pretty good compliance rate; right?  But when the palm comes down, then half the people are resisting.  I think it was 52% would comply.  So almost half the people are now, nope, I’m not going to do this, especially depending on the personality type.  If they’re like a low agreeable, then they’re especially going to resist.  And then when the index finger came out, only 28% of the people complied.  That’s almost nobody was then going to along with what the person was asking.  All just from changing the orientation of their hands.

So that’s cool because any of us can do that.  Any of us can change what we’re doing with our palms, and that has a direct impact on someone’s willingness to listen to what we’re having to say.

The “Head Tilt” and the “Smile”

BILL YATES:  A couple others that I want to pair together are the head tilt and the smile.  So talk to us about that.

JEFF BAIRD:  Head tilt is kind of similar to the open palm in that you’re exposing a vulnerable area.  So when you tilt your neck, you’re exposing your neck.  And so that again is a signal that I trust you.  Another thing you’ll see in mammals oftentimes, like if you have a dog, they’ll tilt their head.  We’ll also tilt our head if we’re trying to listen, so it can also be a positive nonverbal cue showing that I’m listening to you.  And so that’s why it’s a powerful friendship cue.

In fact, there’s a few different body language experts that talk about a cluster of friendship cues that you can do when you first meet somebody.  And there’s three different cues that they recommend.  Head tilt is one of those.  The second cue is the smile.  And we can get into the details of what smile is optimal.  But a smile is a powerful friendship cue.  It’s something that people recognize universally, that they can see from a long ways off, and is going to communicate that you’re a friend.

The third one is a little less intuitive.  It’s a single quick eyebrow flash, where you just shoot your eyebrows up your forehead.  Now, I say “single” because my son, when he was probably about 10, had a girl come up to him.  And he said, “Dad, I had this girl smiling at me and doing this with her eyebrows, bouncing up and down.”  And he says, “Is that a body language thing?”  I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a body language thing.” 

So not bouncing up and down because that’s a different message, but a single eyebrow flash is a nonverbal, “What’s up?”  And it’s fun to experiment with that one.  As you’re walking around, and if you see someone on the street or in the hallway, give them a little eyebrow flash and see if they reciprocate back.  And oftentimes they do.  And if they do, that’s a good sign that you’ve got some potential friendship opportunities there.

BILL YATES:  Those are awesome, yeah.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I’m going to try that, yeah.

Body Language and Virtual Meetings

BILL YATES:  Jeff, you started to address some of the things that I think are new challenges to us today, you know, the pandemic changed how we did work in many ways.  And we rely on GoToWebinar, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, all this other video technology.  It’s like the new meetings are video-based so much of the time now.  And I admit I rely on visual cues to make sure that I’m getting my message across, that I’m understanding people when they’re talking with me and sharing ideas with me.

And it’s been an adjustment to go to a flat screen; right?  I don’t have a person in the room with me.  I don’t have a team in the room with me in many cases.  So we were excited about asking you some of these questions and just how they apply now given where we’re at.  So we’re challenged, given the limitations of technology, when we’re having these virtual meetings, how can we still apply body language?  What are some tips that you have?

JEFF BAIRD:  Yes, it’s a great question.  And the short answer for video and even on phone calls is the same principles apply.  We just have to get creative to apply them.  And with virtual meetings there’s kind of a curveball there, too.  Our primitive brain, the amount of time in human kind that we’ve had TV and computers and devices is a tiny fraction of our existence as humanity; right?  And so our primitive brain has a difficult time telling the difference between what’s real and what’s not when it’s onscreen.  And that’s why we like to watch scary movies, because we’ll start getting an increased heart rate, sweaty palms.  We’ll start getting a little scared watching the movie.  Consciously we know it’s not real.  But our primitive brain still reacts as if this might be a legitimate threat.

And so if you have a hard time telling what’s real, this virtual world doing virtual meetings has some things that can trip us up.  And next thing you know you’re getting – turns out they’re like Zoom fatigue, if you’ve heard of that, that people are getting tired of doing these virtual meetings.  Some people are talking about how they’re feeling anxious in meetings.  And maybe they don’t even know why, but there’s just something about it that’s bothering them.  And much of that is because our brain’s trying to figure out, is this real?  Is it not?  This isn’t acting like a normal conversation would go, and that’s making me feel uncomfortable.

So one example of that is eye contact.  In person, easy to make eye contact, and we know that it’s important for showing confidence and for building a connection.  But is our eye contact the same in a virtual world?  If I’m looking at you on the screen, where are my eyes actually looking from your perspective?  Down; right?  In fact, on one of my laptops my web cam’s down there, so then it really throws off my…

BILL YATES:  Same here.  I’ve had the same issue.  It’s in the bottom left corner.  So, you know, I look cross-eyed. 

JEFF BAIRD:  And so our brain’s struggling with that.  It’s like, are they looking at me?  This isn’t normal.  And so as a reminder when we’re talking to somebody we can look at the web cam to make sure they’re feeling like we’re making eye contact.  Now, the tradeoff for that is now I’m not watching their nonverbal cues, and I’m missing out on that.  But the good news is we don’t have to have 100% eye contact.  In fact, if you think about people that do too much eye contact in person, that’s a little creepy and awkward.  So we want to find a balance there.

And that’s good news for the virtual world.  You know, about 60% is a good rule of thumb for how much eye contact.  And so in our virtual meetings we can look at the person as they’re speaking and watch their nonverbals, but remind ourselves pay attention to the camera, too, so that they feel like we’re making that eye contact.  That’s difficult because our eyes are drawn towards movement.  And there’s not movement up by our camera.  Mine’s just a little teeny dot of light.  And so to help you can put a Post-it note, or you can put a picture, something up near the camera just to remind you to pay attention to the camera.

Now, a couple of other things that come into play, too, in in-person interaction, what happens if somebody gets too close to you in your personal bubble?  Makes you feel uncomfortable; right?  Feels just a little creepy.  We have these personal bubbles, these personal zones that we’re only comfortable letting people in the more we trust them, are familiar with and close to them.  In the virtual world, again, as our brain’s trying to tell us what’s real and what’s not, most of us have our laptops pretty close; right?  Like this.  In a subtle way, that’s triggering our brain, saying, is this person starting to get in my personal space?

BILL YATES:  How funny, yeah.  Haven’t thought about that, yeah.  Close talker via Zoom, yeah.

JEFF BAIRD:  Right, a close talker.  Now, this is another one that can be tricky because if you get far enough back, then it’s hard to reach your keyboard, too.  And so we’ve got to find the balance.  But in those really important meetings where you want to make sure people are comfortable, then give a little space between you and the camera.  Not so far that you’re a little speck in the background.  Like the torso’s pretty good because then they can see your hands.  And it’s a pretty comfortable distance away from the camera.  And I know it’ll help them feel like you’re not invading their virtual personal space.

Improving Phone Presence 

WENDY GROUNDS:  When you were talking earlier, you were talking about smiling, and you put on a big smile when you were expressing that.  And I noticed your voice change.  So that’s one thing I just want to tie in with all of this is how can we improve our presence on the phone?  Like what are some good things we should be doing?

JEFF BAIRD:  The short answer with the phone is same principles apply.  And one of the reasons for that you’ve suggested is that what we’re doing with our expressions and with our body language comes across in our voice.  In some of my presentations and speeches, we’ll do live experiments where I’ll play a recording of someone saying hello on the phone, and then see if they can tell, do they have a smile on their face?  Are they doing power body language?  And people pretty accurately can tell what you’re doing with their body language.  They may not be able to consciously articulate, but they can feel it, and they know what that sounds like.  And like you said, if you smile, it does change your voice.

So when we’re on the phone, we want to resist that urge to just kind of relax and slump our shoulders because they can’t see us because that’s going to come across in our voice.  We might sound a little more apathetic or less engaged in what’s going on in the conversation.  So in those important meetings, then keep doing the power body language.  Keep doing the friendship cues because they will hear it in their voice.  And that will, again, affect how they perceive you and their willingness to listen and to be influenced.

BILL YATES:  Jeff, I’ve got a standup desk at home.  It’s in my home office.  And that’s made a big difference for me.  I feel like when I’m standing, whether it’s on the phone or on a video meeting, my energy level is naturally higher, you know, standing up straight, having good posture, be more animated with my hands.  If I’m sitting, I tend to have my hands preoccupied with a pad of paper or keyboard or something like that.  So that’s something that that’s helped me is, you know, if you’re going to have a standup meeting, then if you’re at home, stand up.

JEFF BAIRD:  Yeah, I love that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.

JEFF BAIRD:  Love that.

The 3 “Shuns” of Workplace Breakdowns

WENDY GROUNDS:  We want to run through what you refer to as the three “Shuns” of workplace breakdowns, I saw in a webinar that you did with Apex.  And I’ll let you run through them, if you can, and just explain why there are “shuns” of workplace breakdowns.

JEFF BAIRD:  Yeah.  And so we’ve all probably seen in our own careers in the meetings how much of a productivity killer it is when there’s disagreement or when people don’t trust each other.  If we can learn the dynamics of what’s behind those breakdowns, then hopefully we can prevent it, recognize it, and react to it appropriately so that we can have better interactions with people.  And so the three “shuns” of communication breakdown, one is prevention because if you can prevent upset feelings or people who are on the defensive or lack of trust, if you can prevent it in the first place, then that’s ideal.  But we’re in an imperfect world.  There are going to be times where people are getting upset.

So the second “shun” is recognition, to recognize when things are starting to go wrong so that we can respond.  And a lot of that is body language, to just be in tune, paying attention to what direction things are going in the conversation.  And then the last “shun” is reaction.  When things do go south, because they are going to, then what we can do to help defuse the situation, and what we can do to control our own impulses, our own fight-or-flight so that we don’t add fuel to the fire with the goal of getting things back to a productive state where we can again collaborate and work together.

So the first one, with prevention, that’s ideal because inside our brains, too, between our primitive brain and the more evolved neocortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, there’s this kind of balance for power or struggle for power.  But what they’ve seen is that when there’s lots of activity and blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which controls our executive functions – it’s the thinking brain.  It’s the part that has our values and can help us plan.  When there’s lots of activity in that part of the brain, there tends to be less activity in the primitive parts of our brain, the fight-or-flight parts.  But the opposite of that is true, too.  As there’s increased activity and blood flow to the primitive parts of the brain, the limbic system and the brainstem, then our thinking brain starts to get less activity and starts to think less.

Now, in communication, you can probably think of a time when two people started getting into an argument, and everybody around them, from the outside can tell when they’re no longer interested in coming to a good conclusion; they’re interested in being right.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  You can see that shift, yeah.

JEFF BAIRD:  Because that’s when the primitive brain, the emotional brain, has taken over.  The logic is no longer running the show anymore.  And when that happens, as soon as we’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, that’s where it’s too difficult to be productive.  That’s where it’s going to be difficult to come to a reconciliation.  So if we can prevent that from happening in the first place, that’s ideal.  There’s things that are going to contribute to this.  And much of it is we like to think that we’re not acting on animalistic impulses.  That’s true when our prefrontal cortex is driving the car.  But our animalistic instincts are still there, still influence us quite a bit.

So years ago I remember going into this cave up in the mountains of Montana, and there was – it was a cool cave.  It had like icicles in it, even though it was July.  It was an ice cave.  And as we were preparing to go into it, we realized there was a bear up the trail just about 30 yards away from us.  And usually bears won’t hang around very much, but he was staying around and watching us and kind of circled us a little bit.  Which is kind of an interesting example of animal behavior.  Why was he so interested in the cave and wasn’t just running away?  Well, as it turns out, that was his den.  Once we started crawling in the cave, then we started seeing signs of this is where he was living.

And so you can see that with animals there’s going to be some predictable drivers and predictable motivators.  Maybe he was hanging around because he wanted to eat us.  We were a source of food.  Maybe he was hanging around because we were invading his territory, which turned out to be the case.  We were going into his home.  Did he see us as competition?  If he had a kill nearby, and other bears were trying to come and invade on his kill, then there would be some competition there.  If they were protecting young.  All these things are normal and intuitive with animals.

But we have equivalents in our world.  Personal space we talk about.  Why does that make us uncomfortable?  Because it starts to feel like a threat.  If somebody’s stealing your idea, you had a great idea and now they’re taking credit for it.  There’s the competition part.  Or even just competing for positions or for salary, that’s a pretty common thing in the workplace.  Feeling threatened.  That’s common.  Protective.  All these things are still in us.  We still have the same primitive brains and the same impulses.

So if we can be mindful of that and try not to trigger people’s fight-or-flight, then that helps.  It’s kind of like body language, at least being aware that people can respond negatively to these kinds of things and to be careful about how we’re wording things and be careful with our body language so that they feel safe.  For me the goal is always creating a safe place.  I actually do want disagreements and differing opinions.  So I want to foster a safe place where they aren’t feeling that there’s competition or feeling threatened, but that they can come with any idea, even an opposing one, and that it’s a safe place to do that.

Creating a Safe Environment

BILL YATES:  That’s great.  You know, Jeff, just to add to that, I think as a leader, as a leader of a team, you want to foster that collaboration and that, okay, you take one side, you take the other, and let’s debate it, you know, let’s make sure we get to the right decision.  But then to your point, if you have the awareness to see, okay, this has just gotten personal, just gotten primal, it’s just gotten off base, their brain has flipped, they’ve disconnected, and they’re no longer having a healthy debate, now it’s getting personal.

So that’s when as leaders you step in and say, let’s take a timeout.  Let’s take a five-minute break, 10-minute break, whatever.  And you may have to follow one of them down the hall and say, hey, you were getting really personal.  Let’s keep this professional.  I just want to make sure we get to the right answer here.  This is not a battle to the end that has to have only one winner.  And so yeah, I think that’s a helpful mindset for me to be able to see, okay, when is the team having healthy disagreement, and when has it flipped and become unhealthy, and I need to step in and take a timeout?

JEFF BAIRD:  Yeah, there’s a few things in there that you mentioned that I really like.  And one of them was just paying attention because the nonverbals will tell you we need to remind ourselves to watch for that, especially changes in the body language, because we’ll kind of have our own things that we always do.  That’s why arm folding doesn’t necessarily mean what a lot of body language experts say it does.  It depends.  But if we’re watching for changes, if somebody is exhibiting a certain kind of body language with their arms, their openness, but then it changes, that’s often when there’s something that you need to pay attention to.  And that’s where the recognition comes in to see when something’s going south.

And then I like that you said, you know, “Take a break.”  Because one of the best things you can do when the bear brain takes over or the lizard brain takes over is time.  You know, you should think about, as you’re driving down the freeway and you see police lights in your rearview mirror, you’re immediately in fight-or-flight because you think you’re in trouble.  But then if you realize that they’re actually trying to pull someone else over, but you notice how long it takes for your heart rate to get back to normal, it takes a little time to get out of fight-or-flight.  So it’s the same thing in those tense moments.  Taking a break is brilliant because time is what gives that balance of power back to the thinking brain so that you can get back to being productive and collaborative.

Detecting Lies

WENDY GROUNDS:  Before we wrap up, one last thing.  And it’s been burning on my mind because I’m not always sure of this.  But how can we sense if someone is lying to us?  What are some cues that we can look for?

JEFF BAIRD:  So lying is a fun one.  You can get pretty accurate with spotting a lie if you have enough data points.  So as part of my certification we would have to watch videos of people telling truths and lies and have to identify what the lie is.  The catch is you have to have enough data points.  Because what often happens, without any training, we’re about 50/50 as human beings on spotting a lie with body language.  So it’s about as good as a flip of the coin.

People that dabble in human lie detection and body language-based detection often actually get worse at it.  And I think that’s because you tend to see what you’re looking for.  And so if I’m looking for cues that you’re lying, I’m probably going to find them.  Or it might be some nervous cues and say, okay, they’re lying, when it’s really just that they’re nervous.

BILL YATES:  They’re just nervous.

JEFF BAIRD:  So in order to be accurate with it, what it takes is it’s similar to a lie detection machine.  You first need a baseline of what’s normal for that person with their body language.  What they’re doing with their expression, what they’re doing with their posture, what they’re doing with their hands, their torso, their feet, all of that, their tone of voice, the types of words that they’re using, you get a normal baseline for what’s normal for them personally.

But then, so you don’t confuse it with other negative emotions and other fight-or-flight type of emotions, then you look for a nervous baseline, too.  So if you’re having a conversation with someone, if you can find some question that might make them feel a little uncomfortable, but they’re likely to tell the truth about, then you can start gathering a nervous baseline, as well.  Once you have that firmly established, then you can get into some questions that they might lie about.  And what you’re looking for are red flags that are different, that deviate from what’s normal.

And there’s a side note.  The reason this works is because when we’re lying, our brains have to do a whole bunch of things all at once, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy, only worse.  We’re trying to suppress the truth and trying to construct the lie and control our body language, all this stuff all at once.  And we’re not going to be very good at that.  Those red flags are going to leak out.  And then as you’re noticing these red flags, the more red flags you have, obviously, the higher confidence that they are trying to deceive you.  And then even after that you want to try to seek confirmation and not jump to conclusions.

A good example of how this can actually work is with a former FBI agent named Joe Navarro.  And he tells a story about, if I remember right, it was a guy that had escaped from prison, and they thought maybe he would go to his mom’s house.  So they went to the mom’s house, and they’re talking to her with nonthreatening questions, establishing a baseline, and then they asked about her son, has he come back here.  And that’s when they start seeing a cluster of different cues.

One in particular was touching the nose.  When we lie we also have tissue in our nose that gets kind of itchy or uncomfortable so often touch our nose more.  So she touched her nose, and he’s like, okay, there’s a red flag.  But he didn’t jump to conclusion yet.  They went back and talked about some other things, and then brought back the question again.  Are you sure your son hasn’t made contact or tried to stop by?  And then she said no and touched her nose again.  He did that a third time.  So he’s gathering as many clues and red flags as possible.  And even the third time, touched her nose.  “No, he’s not here.”  And as it turned out he was.  He was there.  That’s an example.

And it can take a lot of practice, a lot of time, a lot of data points to increase confidence.  One that I’m kind of curious about that I was just playing with was there’s a new Marvel movie coming out, and there’s rumors about Ryan Reynolds being in it.  He said he’s not in it.  But if you go watch that interview on YouTube, now, you might see some little red flags there.

BILL YATES:  Ah, okay.

JEFF BAIRD:  There might be something there.  So I didn’t do a formal coding process on him yet.  Maybe I should.  But just enough to wonder.

BILL YATES:  That’s interesting.  See, Jeff, with actors, you know, I’m thinking, okay, they’re professionally trained.  Is it a double switch kind of a thing here?  That’s so hard to know.

JEFF BAIRD:  Poker players and actors, they’re really…

BILL YATES:  Yeah, so hard to read; right?  That was fun.  I remember just some stuff I’ve read by Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant.  Just trying to read people is so difficult.  And you’re right, you have to have a ton of data, and you have to establish that baseline.  So I don’t have time for it as a project manager.  I’ve got to trust people.

JEFF BAIRD:  Yeah.  Right.


JEFF BAIRD:  See a lot of experts on the Internet reading body language, and it’s discouraging how often they’re jumping to conclusions, the bias that they have.  You have to be careful.  Get enough data points and try to be as objective.  Otherwise jump to the wrong conclusions.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, it can be damaging.

BILL YATES:  Jeff, this has been such a fun conversation.  There is a whole body of soft skills that project managers either have to learn or improve on.  Every project they go into, every project is different.  We have different team members.  We have different customers.  And we have different demands.  Maybe we’re  reporting to different people upstream.  And trying to read each person is different.  So this is just a fascinating conversation, just looking at the statistics that only 7% of communication is actually tied to the words, that 93% of it is nonverbal.  We were just delighted to have you on to discuss this with us and explore it with us.  I think we could talk with you about this topic for hours.  So thank you for giving us your time today.  Really appreciate it.

JEFF BAIRD:  Thank you.  I can definitely talk for hours about it.  Appreciate it.

BILL YATES:  We can just ask your kids; right?



JEFF BAIRD:  I appreciate it.  Thank you very much.

Contact Jeff

WENDY GROUNDS:  Just a quick note.  If you want to reach out to Jeff, you can contact him on LinkedIn.  His LinkedIn is jeffabaird, and Baird is spelled B-A-I-R-D, jeffabaird.  And you can contact Jeff on LinkedIn.  He’d love to hear from you.


That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you for joining us.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  We also want to thank our listeners who reach out to us and leave comments on our website or on social media.  We love hearing from you, and we appreciate your positive ratings on Apple Podcast or whichever podcast listening app you use.

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4 responses to “Episode 152 – Body language – Unlocking the Silent Advantage”

  1. Scott (Edward) Wolfson says:

    Really interesting conversation. I hope to apply the non verbal communication in my next project meeting

  2. Megan says:

    Great podcast to help with critical discussions and team meetings.

  3. Sri says:

    Fantastic Conversation. Really enjoyed it. Thank you!!

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