You may have “sales” in your job title. But if you are a leader announcing an organizational change, an entrepreneur pitching to a venture capitalist, or an employee on a job interview – you too are in sales. And in any situation where you are selling a product, a service, or an idea, engagement and disengagement are the most important signals to monitor in your audience’s body language.
Engagement behaviours indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement while disengagement behaviours signal boredom, anger, or defensiveness.
Let’s say you have just presented two written options to a potential client and you notice that your prospect’s gaze lingers longer on one than on the other. If, in addition, you see his eyes open wider and his pupils dilate, you know for certain that he has a much greater interest in this particular option.
In general, people tend to look longer and with more frequency at people or objects they like. A person may be trying to look uninterested, but his eyes will keep returning to the object that attracts him.
The same is true with eye contact. Most of us are comfortable with eye contact lasting about three seconds, and prolonged mutual gaze without breaking can make us nervous. But when we like or agree with someone we automatically increase the amount of time we look into his or her eyes.
Disengagement triggers the opposite gaze reactions. The amount of eye contact decreases, as we tend to look away from things that distress us and from people we don’t like. Similarly, a client who is bored or restless may avoid eye contact by gazing past you, defocusing, or glancing around the room. And, instead of opening wide, eyes that signal disengagement will narrow slightly. In fact, eye squints can be observed as people read contracts or proposals, and when they occur it is almost always a sign of having seen something troubling or problematic.
Researchers have known for years that eye pupil size is a major clue in determining a person’s emotional responses. The pupils are a part of our body we have practically no control over. Therefore, pupil dilation can be a very effective way to gauge someone’s interest. Pupils dilate for various reasons, including memory load and cognitive difficulty, but pupils also dilate when we have positive feelings about the person we’re talking to or object we’re looking at. And when someone is less than receptive, his or her pupils will automatically constrict.
But eye cues aren’t the only body language signals that let you know how your presentation is being received. One question to ask yourself: Is that smile genuine?
Typically, someone who is in agreement with you will smile and nod as you speak. (Disagreement shows up in compressed or pursed lips, clenched jaw muscles, or a head turned slightly away, so eye contact becomes sidelong.) But smiles are often used as a polite response and to cover up other emotions. Faked smiles involve the mouth only. Unless someone is expressing genuine pleasure or happiness, it’s hard to produce a real smile – the kind that crinkles the corners of the eyes and lights up the entire face.
Gestures are also telling. In general, the more open the position of your prospect’s arms, the more receptive he or she is. Watch for expansive, welcoming gestures that seem to flow naturally from a person’s behaviour. When someone reaches toward you or uses a lot of open-hand gestures, it is usually a positive signal of interest and receptivity.
By contrast, people who are defensive or angry may protectively fold their arms across their chest, clench their hands into a fist or tightly grip their arm or wrist. Boredom is often indicated by doodling in a way that seems to absorb the doodler’s complete attention, drumming fingers on the table, or holding using a hand to support the head.
The shoulders and torso also play an important role in potential buyers’ reactions. The more people like and agree with you, the more they will lean toward you and the more closely they will stand before or beside you. On the other hand, when you say or do things your customers disagree with or are uncertain about, the more they will tend to lean back and create more space between the two of you.
When you see people turn their shoulders and torso away from you, you’ve probably lost their interest. In fact, orienting away from someone in this manner almost always conveys detachment or disengagement, regardless of the words spoken. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, ‘pointing’ at you with their torso. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they will turn away – giving you ‘the cold shoulder.’ And if someone is feeling defensive, you may see an attempt to shield the torso with a purse, briefcase, laptop, etc.
People who are in agreement tend to mirror each other’s behaviour. One will lead and the other will follow. If you notice your client has assumed the same basic body orientation as yours, move slightly and see if she follows suit. If she does, you know you’ve made a positive connection.
One of the most interesting set of body language signals to monitor come from below the hips. When people try to control their body language, they focus primarily on facial expressions and hand/arm gestures. That leaves their feet and legs ‘unrehearsed’ and often very revealing. For example, if someone is sitting with ankles crossed and legs stretched forward, he or she is probably feeling positively toward you. But when you see feet pulled away from you or wrapped in a tight ankle lock or pointed at the exit or wrapped around the legs of a chair, you would be wise to suspect withdrawal and disengagement. Other signals from feet include:
- High-energy heel bouncing almost always indicates that the party involved has ‘happy feet’ – and is feeling pretty good about your presentation. And if your seated client/customer rocks back on his heels and raises his toes – he probably thinks he has the upper hand.
- In the opposite case, bouncing legs that suddenly go still is probably a sign of heightened anticipation – the equivalent of holding your breath.
- Crossed legs send their own set of cues. If the foot on the leg that is crossed on top is pointing towards you, the person is most likely engaged. If the opposite leg is crossed so the top foot is pointing away, the person may be withdrawing.
All salespeople understand the value of good communication skills – but the most successful realize that there are two conversations going on, and they stay equally alert to what isn’t being said.
Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.