Professional Development Opinion

The Importance of Listening to Non-Verbal Messages

By Elena Aguilar — December 02, 2013 4 min read
Image of a teacher in a classroom.
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Here’s a startling fact: some sixty-five percent of what we communicate is conveyed through our body language, pitch, volume, and tone of voice. The words we select (sometimes so carefully and thoughtfully) only comprise around thirty percent of the message that our audience receives. We reveal clues to our unspoken intentions or feelings through our physical behavior—through body posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements. This is typically subconscious behavior that provides clues about attitude or state of mind.

Coaching happens in conversation, so for coaches, this means we need to pay acute attention to body language, in addition to the words our client says. I’ve noticed that non-verbal cues are often what give me the deepest insight into what’s going on with a coachee—and when I’ve felt stuck about what to do or say next, it’s because I haven’t been paying close attention to the non-verbal clues. Like all other coaching strategies, this is a skill that you can strengthen and develop if it doesn’t come instinctively to you. Here’s what to pay attention to:

Start with the face. Notice brows, furrowed brows, a set jaw, pinched lips, lack of eye contact. Our facial expressions reveal a great deal about how we feel. So if you’ve asked the teacher you’re coaching if he’d be willing to use a different instructional approach in his next lesson, and he’s nodding his head and saying “Yes, I can do that,” but his lips are tight, his brow is curling inward and he’s looking away from you, his words might not be aligned to his true feelings.

Arms are also telling indicators. Crossing your arms over your chest can mean you’re cold, or that you’re feeling nervous, defensive, or protective of yourself. Furthermore, if you see that your client unfolds his arms, that can also mean he’s opening up, feeling less nervous.

Shoulders also reveal an internal story. Hunched, curled over, open and relaxed—we unconsciously move our torso into ways that reflect how we’re feeling. If a client leans towards you while you’re talking, that can be an indicator that he or she is receptive and engaged. If he or she leans backwards, that can indicate wanting to move away from you.

Other non-verbal indicators cues such as sighing are powerful messages. When a client I’m talking to exhales in a loud sigh, I always take note. Something is going on. She might be feeling relieved, she might have just had an important understanding, she might be processing emotions that would be worth surfacing and discussion. I start by just noticing these cues.

That’s where you start—just notice what your client does while you’re talking, notice the body language. It is important to recognize that there are cultural and gender differences in how we communicate non-verbally. But before you get into interpretation or trying to understand what all of those are, you just need to notice. In my mind this sounds like: Client is leaning back in chair and gazing at the ceiling ... Now she’s dropped her head into her hands and is rubbing her temples ... Client is smiling and nodding ... Client has crossed her legs and folded her arms over her chest ....

What do you do with all this noticing? Sometimes you ask about what you’re observing. For example, if you’ve made a suggestion, and you notice that although the teacher says, “Okay, I’ll do that tomorrow,” (perhaps in a choppy tone of voice) and he’s folded his arms, leaned back, and his face has become expressionless, you might say, “I hear that you’re willing to try this, and I’m noticing that you’ve crossed arms, you’re leaning away from me, and the expression on your face makes me think you’re not as willing as you’re saying. Is something going on that might be helpful to talk about?”

Many of the big breakthroughs I’ve had with clients have been a result of my observations of their non-verbal communication. This has opened up conversations into underlying feelings, beliefs and ways of being that otherwise might not have surfaced. I know that when we’re beginning to coach, we are often focused intensely on listening to what a client says—on the words he’s selecting—and what we say. A strong listening practice is essential in coaching—and it also includes listening to non-verbal language.

Here is a tool (NonVerbal Cues Tool) that can help you hone your observation of non-verbal communication. If you work with a team of coaches, you can also use this when role playing or viewing video of each other coaching. This is also a great tool to use if you coach leaders—site administrators, teacher leaders, or anyone else in a position of leadership. You can use this tool (with permission, of course) while observing them speaking to staff, meeting with a teacher, and so on. And of course, you can use it to analyze your own body language when you’re coaching if you video record yourself in action. We are so often unaware of the messages our body sends when our mouths are talking! Happy listening to you.

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