We were once adept at reading the nonverbal cues of our boss and coworkers in a physical office space. Upon receiving an email which was confusing, we could simply swivel our chairs or walk down the hall and ask the sender for clarification. When seeing a downcast look or slumped shoulders, we immediately and accurately concluded that our boss was disappointed, or a coworker stressed out. Moreover, we had all day to figure it out and got hints as we walked to the office watercooler.
Now our work interactions are confined to a screen, via Zoom, Facetime, Skype, and multiple other technology methods. Our current reality has become trying to decipher body language and glances through a screen, which is not only exhausting, but subject to error and misinterpretation.
With that said, there are plenty of ways to read your coworkers’ nonverbal cues, especially if you know what to look for. Here are 5 tips on how to do so:
- Control the view.
For example, adjust your screen to focus solely on your coworkers, in order to fully pick up on their nonverbal cues. Avoid paying too much attention to the “self-view” as you may miss coworkers’ crucial cues. Consider reducing the size of your computer/app screen, so that attendees do not appear uncomfortably close.
- Try not to overreact.
If someone sends you what appears to be an aggressive or non-complementary message, assume that they did so without foul intent. If the communication does not adversely impact your ability to perform your work, you are far better off just letting it go. With that said, if it happens repeatedly, then it is time to have a frank chat with either that person, your boss, or Human Resources.
- Observe changes in behavior.
For example, if your typically nonchalant manager suddenly starts using more formal and direct language, something might be up. Or if your normally communicative coworker stops responding to your messages, it may be worrisome. Also, pay close attention to people’s movements during Zoom calls: a colleague crossing their arms could mean that they disagree with whatever you said. Or, alternatively, this gesture could mean your colleague is simply cold and trying to warm themselves. Also, pay close attention to people’s eyebrows. Eyebrows pointed down could indicate anger or disagreement. Widening eyebrows most likely mean your colleague is either surprised or shocked.
- Be careful not to mis-interpret written communication.
Short or curt emails or texts may mean your colleague or boss disagrees, but it also may mean that they are simply busy or overwhelmed with work.
- Observe the eyes.
Are they looking directly at you indicating that they are truly listening to you and fully engaged? Or are they shifting their eyes indicating either that they disagree or simply not listening?
Given all of the potential for virtual communication challenges and misinterpretations, don’t forget that you may be far better off just picking up the phone and directly communicating with your boss or coworker.