Reading People’s Body Language Can Enhance Leadership

Our CFO looked me in the eye as we were having a one-on-one session and said, ‘Well, I can tell this meeting is over.’ I asked, ‘why would you say that’ and he answered that when I seemingly lose interest in a discussion, I stroke my left eyebrow.  Damn!  He read me like a book, a skill I prided myself on honing over many years of observation. It was difficult, but from that day forward I tried very hard to never again stroke my left eyebrow, at least when meeting with that CFO.

Behavioral patterns and body language; most of us develop an awareness of them (in others); some of us learn to use that awareness to our advantage.

A Playful Example:

My client was interested in purchasing a sizable Midwest consumer products’ company.  The selling company was represented by an east coast broker known for connecting some rather sizable transactions. He visited us a number of times to ‘present’ the offering memorandum and field initial questions. We usually had seven or eight people attend and the broker always took the same seat, one seat in from the left end of the conference table.

At the end of each meeting it was ‘show time.’  The broker would slowly swivel his chair to take in the view of all in attendance. And then…he would lecture, he would ‘sell’ and he would instruct, easily rotating slightly from left to right, speaking to each of us and all of us and then…end of meeting! After we toured the Midwest company and kicked the tires we met one more time in the conference room; the subject was a purchase offer.

For this meeting however, I asked our team to arrive 15 minutes early and assigned seats.  One of us took the broker’s preferred seat and positioned his at the middle of the table, but substituted a rigid chair, no castors, no swivel.  He arrived, a bit surprised that we were already assembled and had to take the remaining open seat. We presented our offer in detail. When we had finished, it was once again ‘show time’ but the broker couldn’t rotate his chair; he had to swivel himself instead; worse, he didn’t have the panoramic view of the table.  It was awkward; his pattern had been derailed and it showed in his negotiations. Many of us held back smiles as we enjoyed a playing field that had been leveled!

A Painful Example:

When serving on a board a number of years ago, my radar went up during a committee meeting when a fellow director commented on some of the documentation being reviewed. After the meeting I asked him in private if he had shared any of the documentation (against policy) with another board on which he served. He answered ‘yes’ and in return I told him I felt obligated to bring the matter to the full board at the next regularly scheduled meeting.

That meeting came soon thereafter.  All directors and executives attending followed a well-established seating pattern except for the director I had questioned. He not only took a different chair than usual but when the agenda led to the concern he had provoked, he intentionally pushed his chair back from the table, seemingly to be out of the line of sight of some of the attendees.  When I summarized the issue for the board and after confirming that he had shared documentation, because of his break in patterns, I asked him how many times he had done so; his candid response, ‘three.’ I would have settled for ‘one’ had his pattern not changed so significantly!

Some things you just don’t learn from books; for me; recognizing and understanding unique or unusual behavioral patterns is one of them. It’s an acquired skill which in my view, when respected, can enhance leadership.

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.