Read Between the Signs

As face-to-face meetings become more commonplace it seemed like a good time to talk about the importance of paying attention to the body language of your pitch target, lunch date, client…


Because being able to accurately read and respond to what you are seeing can help if conversations go off track.

Here’s a quick example, from pre-pandemic days, of how things can go awry:

I used to go to pitch meetings with a partner who, in the interest of making his point, would lean in too closely while—well, browbeating isn’t too strong a word—his listener. He would also interrupt others mid-sentence. 

His passion for making his point meant that he didn’t see slumped shoulders as anything other than bad posture, averted gazes as anything other than bad manners. Drumming fingers, tapping feet… all the signs of “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” were lost on him.

Now I’m not saying I’ve never gotten off at the wrong exit, but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to hear what people are saying without their saying a word, and you can, too.

What signs should you look for?

If someone’s gaze is averted initially, it may be that he or she is shy or uncomfortable. If, however, you are halfway through a lunch or a meeting and that person is no longer looking you in the eye, you need to ask yourself, “Could I have said something to embarrass? Offend? Distress?”  Ditto, slumped shoulders, swinging feet, abrupt interest in something behind your head…

Any of these signs require an immediate, delicate probe.

Why delicate? Because a question along the lines of, “You seem embarrassed/offended/distressed. Why?” makes it sound as if the conversation breakdown is the other person’s fault.

What do I recommend instead?

“Have I said something that isn’t working?”

“Is there a question I haven’t addressed?”

“Have I gone down a rabbit hole/overstepped my authority/made incorrect assumptions?

You get it.

And because you responded to the signs in the moment, you can get the conversation back on track while there’s still time to seal the deal.


For more on body language, take a look at “Mastering the (Often Dreaded) Compensation Conversation”