How can nonverbal communication improve relationships with clients?

Let's start this journey by doing a quick exercise: after speaking with someone, what do you remember more? The words that were said, or how the person made you feel?

Although we might not be aware, communication is more than just what we do or say to others. It's what others understand from what we do or say. When synchronously chatting with someone, facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, and body movements are the elements with the highest responsibility in a message's transmission. Words transmit ideas; the remaining elements pass emotions. And why are they so important? Because 90% of our body language is managed unconsciously by the brain.

As Product Owners, a part of our days is invested in communicating with our clients, teams, and peers. What can we learn from reading these signals to become better communicators and build healthier relationships?


Improving your observation skills

It would be awesome if we could look at someone while talking and understand how they are feeling... Let me give you good news: it’s possible.

But be aware that it’s complex and knowing the meaning of the gestures, movements, or expressions is insignificant if you don't know when, how, and what to observe. Also, to avoid misjudging, you should be conscious of your personal biases or predefined judgments and leave them outside the door. 🤓

Let's check some topics you must consider to improve your analysis. 🕵🏻‍♂️

  1. Stereotypes: Things like your personal opinion about the person you're talking to or judgment based on one's style should be left aside. The style doesn't indicate professionalism, competence, and honesty. If you do that, you're falling into the prejudice area and analyzing based on your experience or previous beliefs, which isn't trustable.
  2. Clusters: pay attention to a set of signals (ideally 3) to define a certain behavior, intention, or attitude. Interpreting someone based on just one gesture might give you a wrong idea of the true person's intention.
  3. Context: It's a body language influencer, so the same non-verbal signs might have different meanings.
  4. Base-behaviour: When someone shows behavior deviations, it can mean that something has changed. Thus, it's essential to question and understand what happened, and the best way to identify behavior deviations is to know beforehand how the person usually acts. This will be that person's base behavior and your ground for comparison.
  5. Intuition: Let your sixth sense enter the game to identify some alert signals. Sometimes you may feel that something isn't well; once your subconscious has detected some alert signs that the conscious isn't still able to percept - do not disregard it.


Observing means paying attention to something that bothers or disturbs you, is at the wrong place, or in the wrong timing, contradictions, or changes in the environment. So, above all, seek to avoid judgments. For efficient analysis, be curious - doubt and make questions so you can find all the answers needed.

Observation method

With the previous highlights in mind, you can interpret someone’s sign by considering the following body division:


  1. Head: It's the less reliable part of the body because it's the closest to the brain. So, it's easier to control it consciously. You can analyze the head's inclination and movement, lips' pressure, eyes, and eyebrows.
  2. Torso: You can evaluate its inclination, the belly button's orientation, and the shoulders' movements.
  3. Limbs: It's the most honest. You can observe the foot, knees, legs' orientation, and arms' behavior.


Most of our interactions with clients, teams, and peers happen remotely, so in the next section, I'll be focusing the analysis on the head — it's the body part we can easily analyze.

Ready, set, go!

Now that we're ready to jump into action, imagine this situation:

You're in a meeting with a client trying to define a strategy for the next product's release, and you share a final alignment that needs to be approved.

Knowing what to observe and how to do it might help you understand if the client is comfortable with your suggestion and adjust your approach accordingly. Below, you'll have a possible analysis with different scenarios and reactions. Let's see what to look for when the discussion starts?


While presenting your suggestion, you noticed that the message’s receptor:

1. Has tilted their head.
This might be a good sign as it reveals interest in what's being said and, most likely, the person wants to hear more. This should motivate you to keep going and ensure all the relevant information is transmitted.

2. Raised eyebrows during the transmission of a particular suggestion or point. Eyebrows are the main emotional indicators in the face and the easiest to read, giving great info about how the message is received. Raising eyebrows is a sign of surprise and good feelings, which shows trust and connection regarding what's being shared - probably, this is the impact you're having on the other person and shows that you can proceed.

On the other side, moving the eyebrows in the opposite direction (down) might mean some disagreement or discomfort. Ideally, if you notice this reaction, try to understand if there are any friction points so you can discuss and adjust the plan to mitigate them.

3. Is biting the lips, sometimes, it even seems that’s not looking to you.
The lips indicate the person's emotional and tension state at a given time, whether one is making mental evaluations or predictions. In this case, it can mean that the client is already trying to make predictions and mentally create scenarios given the plan shared. There is nothing good or bad to take from this reaction; it just means that your approach is being considered and analyzed.

Note:
Pressing the lips can also be an indicator of tension. If you’re nervous during the presentation, this is something that you can unconsciously do while waiting for an answer. 🙂

4. Yawn.
Did you know that this can be just a way for the other's person brain to oxygenate and thus be alert and react to your message (especially if done during moments of tension)? Try not to judge. It isn't a direct signal of boredom in this case.

At the end of your explanation, the client:

1. Says “Yes” while nodding the head in the horizontal plane.
Should you stick to this answer, confident that it meets the client's needs/expectations? The quick response is no, given that truer "Yeses" and "Nos" are the ones you see, not the ones you hear. They give you the other person's actual positive or negative evaluation since it relies on the communication's unconscious and uncontrolled parts.

Probably the client would like to collaborate with you on some adjustments to the proposal, so you can use that interpretation to find an alternative more adjusted to their needs.

2. Says “Yes” while calmingly nodding their head accordingly.Good news! Someone liked what has been proposed! 😊 The slower this movement is, the higher the level of agreement.

Note: If this happened exactly the same way but with a fast nodding during your exposition, it could mean that the person wanted to intervene, so you should be aware of it and give space for the other person to speak.

3. The client says “No” while nodding their head accordingly.
It's truly a no, and the faster the person does this, the bigger the level of disagreement. It's time to see what must be met to have a plan with which everyone is comfortable.


Conclusion

As already mentioned here, communication is an unconditional component that you must use and improve over time as a Product Owner. Interpreting body language is another tool in the box to communicate better, with a pinch of curiosity and a sense of open mind to understand others’ needs and feelings - that’s how great relationships are built. And always remember: when the mouth shuts, the body speaks.

Marta Lopes
Product Owner

Because, every pixel matters.

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