Using Body Language to Counsel Employees

28 Fist Bump

When counseling an employee for misconduct, performance issues, or in developing their skills further, there is typically a lot of preparation before the meeting. The manager must think about the employees own strengths, weaknesses, and communication styles and make sure the message is delivered in a clear and concise way that the employee will easily understand.

But how often do we think of the non-verbal comments we make? If were having a particularly stressful conversation, for example, are we presenting ourselves as closed off by crossing our arms? Sometimes our body language can speak even louder than our words do, and it is important for managers to understand the unspoken messages they may be giving to employees.

My own experience in the military helps illustrate the importance of body language in counseling employees. During Officer Candidate School, we were assigned an instructor to help teach us military skills. The class is a huge transformation in a person’s career and is often accompanied by great stress and physical demands.

Our instructor used several nonverbal cues during our training. If he gave you the eye and crossed his arms, it meant you had been caught doing something wrong. Many soldiers would immediately correct their behavior based on that posture alone, with no words ever said.

During instruction, he also used his body language to show engagement. He smiled when students asked questions, encouraging a free flow of knowledge. He stood square with the person asking the question, not once breaking eye contact as they spoke. His lectures were more conversational, lively, and students asked more questions.

The instructor rarely counseled from behind his desk; he preferred to look the person in the eyes and face him or her square on. He stood to greet anyone; a non-verbal cue to open the session. His eye contact was always on the speaker; he nodded his head with intent, giving real-time feedback that the message was understood. His arms were rarely crossed and his facial expression matched the mood of the conversation. If he was presenting good news, his tone was bright. If it was a corrective action, he was calm and deliberate. He always closed each session the same way he opened; standing, firmly shaking the person’s hand, and looking him or her in the eye.

Managers can utilize nonverbal cues like the instructors in their own companies.

  • Eye-contact and focused attention shows the employees that you are engaged in what they’re saying.
  • Avoid crossing your arms during counseling; it can send a message of defensiveness or being closed-off.
  • Match your tone of voice to the conversation at hand and to help guide the tone of the meeting.
  • Above all, convey respect and attentiveness through your actions, whether the counseling is supportive or corrective.

For human resource guidance on counseling your employees, please contact Nextep’s HR team.

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