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We spend a lot of time thinking about what we will SAY in meetings with elected officials.  We want our message and our ask to be perfect.

However, we should also take note of what we DO in meetings, through our nonverbal messages.  This includes all the cues we send without ever uttering one word, such as our body language and appearance.

Somewhere between 65-90 percent of meaning comes from the nonverbal messages we use to communicate in face-to-face interactions, according to research.  Which means that we are always communicating a message.  Furthermore, research also suggests that nonverbal messages are believed more than verbal messages as they are a more natural reflection of our true feelings.  If that is hard to believe, try eating several bites of a disgusting food while telling dinner companions it is most delicious – see if words or expressions make the more compelling argument for them to try the food.  Therefore, for a message to be heard and believed, the nonverbal messages must align with the verbal message.

There are many practical ways an advocate can put this into practice during a meeting and questions to ask himself to help review personal nonverbal behaviors.  It is also good to be aware of the nonverbal cues the official may be sending.

To start, a firm handshake with solid eye contact and a smile makes an important first impression.  A good appearance is also critical.  This does not mean an advocate meeting with an official must be in a suit, however he should be dressed for the part, whether that is wearing a uniform, a company shirt, or something else that is clean and appropriate.

Sit close, but not too close.  Is the person uncomfortable with the proximity?  Are they straining to hear?

Maintain good and alert posture.  Are we sitting up straight or are we slouched down looking as if we preferred to be elsewhere?  Are we fidgeting in our seat?  Is the orientation of our body direct or indirect?  Does the official look to be trying to get up?

Be engaged in the meeting.  Are we making eye contact with the meeting host or are we distracted by the phone? Are we taking notes or does it seem like our mind is wandering elsewhere?  Are we leaning in the right amount to listen more closely?  Are we nodding (but not becoming a bobble head) when the official states something agreeable?

Gestures should be made with purpose and be respectful to any cultural barriers.  Does the gesture convey helpful meaning to the topic at hand?  Is it visible or being done under the table?  Is the official looking at her watch?

Convey true emotions through facial expressions.  Are our expressions suggesting something contrary to the verbal message?

Eliminate distracting habits.  Are we subconsciously making disrupting noises, such as tapping or clicking a pen?  Do we have other habits that we are unaware we are doing that perhaps our colleagues have noticed in meetings?

Touch appropriately.  Not everyone likes to be touched and behavior that seems innocent to one person can be too intimate for another.  Behavior that works in public may not work in private.  Are we taking cues from the host on whether another handshake, hug, or high-five is fitting when leaving?  Are we sensitive to our physical proximity to the other person as we depart?  Are we making eye contact and smiling as we leave, even if we did not get what we asked (remember, advocacy is about the long game)?

Nonverbal messages play a critical role in our encounters with others and how we are perceived.  A good advocate must closely pay attention to his verbal and nonverbal messages, as well as those messages being given by the official.

If an advocate has a strong verbal message supported by accurate nonverbal messages, an official is more likely to positively interpret the need and message, leading to more encouraging outcomes.

— Riemann is president of 1492 Communications, a consulting firm. Like 1492 Communications on Facebook to learn more.


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