Any time you start a new job — especially if you’re entering hostile work conditions — you can walk into quite a bit of negative nonverbal energy. Maybe people had a beloved leader that you’re replacing, or they wanted the job that you now have. Or maybe they’re just taking a while to warm up to you.
Whether it’s conversation that stops when you enter a room, crossed arms around a meeting table, or inferred feelings of contempt, nonverbals often communicate more than words do.
As a former social worker, I know how important healthy communication is to any relationship, especially in the workplace. Luckily, improving communication by addressing negative nonverbals is easier than most people think.
5 ways to address negative nonverbals
1. Ask the right questions
A general rule of thumb when it comes to addressing nonverbals is to do a lot more listening than talking. To do this, ask open-ended questions that encourage elaborating, rather than a quick yes or no answer.
For example, ask “how are you feeling about the new project?” instead of “is the new project going alright?”
Asking for employees’ advice is another way to make them feel valued. A question like “I know this is a difficult transition — what can I do to make this easier for you?” shows you appreciate their position and want to help.
Also, make sure to address the flipside and share a few things the employee can do to help YOU with the transition. This creates a balanced relationship and a feeling of working towards a common goal.
2. Avoid assumptions like the plague
Those assumptions! They’re killer.
When you feel negative emotion coming from an employee, resist the urge to assume it’s about you. Remember the adage: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
We never fully know what our employees are going through. They could be coping with the loss of a loved one, going through a rocky patch in their marriage, or simply suffering from a case of indigestion.
Give your employees the benefit of the doubt. Before you address behaviors, pause long enough to come up with three other reasons the employee could be acting that way. Ask “what ELSE could it be?” and play devil’s advocate.
This opens your mind before addressing your employee, which helps facilitate a more understanding conversation.
3. Address negative behaviors…the effective way
It’s important to address negative employee behaviors. But there are three important things to keep in mind:
- Discuss behavior in a one-on-one situation. Calling out an employee in front of the team can make them feel embarrassed or hostile, which won’t help anything.
- Use I-language. I know it’s corny, but this works! Instead of saying “you have an attitude” say “I see you crossing your arms and legs, I feel like you’re angry.” Focusing on your experience prevents employees from getting defensive and shows you’re open to an alternate interpretation.
- Take ownership. You want to learn how you can prevent this from happening again. Asking “did something I say/do upset you?” shows that you are open to employee feedback[[link to 12/21 blog post]] and take responsibility for your actions.
4. Acknowledge the feedback and respond accordingly
I’m not one to talk about checking our feelings at the door because we’re human! The more emotionally competent we are as leaders, the better.
Sometimes people need time and space, and an employee might share that they’re having a tough moment. It’s important for you to acknowledge that.
If the situation you’re calling for isn’t urgent, give them some time. Revisit the conversation at a more appropriate time down the road.
If the situation is urgent, do what you can to respect their feelings while honoring your timeline. Ask “would it be helpful if we come back to this tomorrow at 3 pm?” People appreciate any effort you can make to acknowledge their perspective.
5. Get to know people
It’s likely that some of the negative nonverbal energy you’re feeling is simply a result of not knowing each other.
I like to use icebreakers to encourage conversation and interaction. Start a meeting with a great opening question that isn’t necessarily work-related, like:
- “Something I’m looking forward to this weekend is…”
- “The best thing that happened to me today is…”
- “One fun fact that most people don’t know about me is…”
Begin with yourself and model. Answer the prompt yourself and then ask everyone to share in that way.
Icebreakers may feel silly, but they give you something to connect with people over later. You can ask “oh, how did your son’s birthday party go?” to begin to build a relationship.
Know when to let it go!
If you’ve done everything above and you still feel awkwardness, acknowledge that you might be seeing something that’s not there. As humans, we tend to attribute negative intent to others, even when we shouldn’t. You’ve done your best to address the situation, and it’s time to let it go.
Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint…and that’s okay! You’re not gonna get it all done today. You can chew on it and know that the race isn’t given to the swiftest but the one that endures to the end.
How else do you address negative nonverbal energy in your workplace? What short- or long-term solutions have been effective for you? Have you ever thought negative behavior was about you when it was really about something else?
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