One of the most effective ways to make sure your meeting is productive is to know how everyone in the room feels about being there. With that information, you can learn who to directly engage with, or even think about wrapping up the meeting early.
If they are all listening and engaged, great. But if not, you might as well not have the meeting at all. How many times have meetings been progressing where half the people in the room are staring at their phones? Staring at phones is a relatively obvious way of recognising that people aren’t engaged. But what else can you look out for?
Body language is a more subtle way of working out how they are feeling. For example, if you are standing having a chat to someone look at where their feet are pointing. If they are pointing towards the door, then it means they are thinking about leaving. They are mentally trying to position themselves to be able to get out as quickly as possible.
Here’s what some of the other common Board Table body language signs can mean:
1. Sitting on Hands
If someone is sitting on their hands, it can mean that they are being accepting of what is happening, without offering any kind of input or resistance. They are either very comfortable with everyone else in the room making the decision, or they don’t care about the outcome.
Could this person be thinking about leaving the company? Perhaps they are a manager and they feel that they have hired good people to make these decisions on their behalf? Maybe they don’t know enough about what is being discussed to be able to offer comment or input. Or maybe they are nervous about speaking up in front of people.
2. Leaning back with hands behind the head
This is a very dominant and superior position, suggesting that the person feels that they are better than everyone else in the room. It’s a position of safety and shows that they feel un-threatened and in control.
This person could be being arrogant, or feel that they are more senior than everyone there and want to show it. Having the elbows pointing outwards is making the person as big as possible (without standing up), therefore they are showing “alpha male” traits (although this isn’t a position which is solely occupied by men, of course).
Could this person be trying to dominate the room? Do they have superiority over everyone else? Perhaps they are trying to intimidate the other people in the meeting.
3. Positioning something between themselves and the other people in the room
If someone positions something between themselves and the other people in the room, it suggests that they are uncomfortable or even insecure. They are trying to put up a barrier and close themselves in.
If you are setting up a room for a meeting, ensure that any coasters or water jugs are positioned indirectly in front of people to make the room feel more friendly and welcoming. It is really interesting to see where people place their cups or glasses on the table while the meeting is in progress.
If someone is putting up this barrier, have you noticed that they might feel ganged up on? Perhaps they need a little bit of time to process the information they are receiving before offering a response.
4. Hands in a prayer position
This could mean a couple of different things (so it’s best to think about it in the context of what is being discussed in the meeting).
On the one hand, they could be pleading or thankful. Are they being interviewed? Then this person REALLY wants the job and is thankful that you are interviewing them. I’ll leave that up to you to decide whether that’s a good thing!
On the other hand, they could be very confident and trying to show that they won’t be changing their mind. Are you in the middle of trying to negotiate with them? If they have said no, then you’ll have to try pretty hard if you are going to convince them.
5. Leaning forward in their chair
If someone in the meeting is leaning forward in their chair, this means that they are pretty interested in what is being said. They are probably in agreement with it. They are trying to put themselves closer to the discussion.
Take this as a very good sign, especially if you are trying to sell them something! As soon as they lean forward, that’s when you ask them to commit – especially if they gently touch their chin at the same time!
6. Head tilted forward
If you are talking and there’s someone in the room whose head is tilted towards you, this means that they are disproving of what you are saying. They are being judgmental or critical of what they are hearing or seeing. If they are wearing glasses, they will quite often be looking over the top of them (a bit like you’d imagine a school teacher telling you off).
Have you just explained your plans of how you are going to be saving your company money? They don’t agree with what you are saying. Are you in the middle of a brainstorming exercise? They are criticising your suggestions. Perhaps try and engage them to try and understand their point of view. Perhaps you are just looking at the subject in two different ways.
7. Leaning back in their chair
This person is generally relaxed and confident. They are not arrogant like the person with their hands behind their head could be, and are generally accepting with what is being said in the meeting. This could be mistaken for thinking that they don’t care what is being said, but in reality they are very comfortable.
Obviously there is a certain health and safety issue here – remember your teacher always telling you off for leaning back in your chair!
8. Resting head on a hand
This is a typical sign that someone is bored and not interested in the meeting anymore. It’s quite an obvious sign so someone might well consciously recognise that they are doing it. So look out for a lesser-version of this giveaway. Propping the chin up on the hand is sometimes the first “stage” of this one.
If someone starts resting their head in your meeting, it’s time to wrap it up quick. They are probably thinking about lunch and not absorbing anything that is being said.
9. Tugging at clothing
Tugging at clothing shows that the person is trying to distract them from what is being said in the meeting. They are uncomfortable in the situation. Here it is best to try and work out why they might be uncomfortable. A typical situation could be someone who is being disciplined in some way.
But they could also be hiding something. I once saw someone suddenly playing with their cufflinks at the moment in the meeting where conflicts of interest were being discussed. Picking up on this body language, I did some digging after the meeting and found out that they were hiding a conflict which they should have been declaring. Turned out to be no issue after all, but this is one I always like to keep an eye open for.
This is common in a lot of meetings I sit in on and it generally means that the person doodling has completely tuned out to what is being said. Sometimes this is OK, but remember to call their attention back into the room before you start talking about something else in detail. Otherwise you will just end up having to repeat yourself.
Alternatively, doodling can be a sign of fatigue so it’s best to end the meeting and reconvene another day if you can, or pause for a coffee break.
If you need to have a really quick meeting to make a quick decision, try having it standing up so the doodlers don’t have chance to start. Or tell people they won’t need to take notes so they leave their pens and notepads at their desk.
So next time you are in a meeting, keep an eye out for the subtle things that people are doing subconsciously. It could make or break your meeting and save you a whole lot of time in having to repeat yourself over and over again.