What Is Your Body Saying

Our silent communication is often louder than our verbal one, and it’s not always saying the same thing as our words. Or what we want. The mixed messages we send can cause people to not trust you, not feel included, or not worth your time. And since our relationships are key to our success, making sure there’s cohesion in what we are communicating is important.

Body language communicates what we are thinking – even if when (especially when) we’re not aware of it. Whatever mindset we have about an interaction is on display for everyone to see in our body language. It includes voice and tone as well as the positions of our body.

For example, have you ever had a situation where a class you “know” to be difficult lives up to your expectations? There’s a chance you were partially responsible for this. How did you sound when you greeted them? How were you holding your body? All of these tell the students you were sure they were going to act up. And then they do. But, if you prepare yourself and change your mindset, you can get a different outcome. For example, you can think of the students as highly energetic rather than troublesome. Most of the time, along with a good lesson, it will work.

Your body language also comes into play when you are at a meeting. There are many reasons you might not be fully engaged, but if you learn to recognize and control your body language, you can prevent sending negative messages. Lolly Daskal in Seven Cringeworthy Body Language Mistakes Leaders Make During Meetings provides basics you need to know as a teacher and leader to become more aware of any unconscious communications you are making.

Unengaged Posture –Slouching sends a message that you are tuning out. When meeting with a group of teachers, doing this while they discuss matters related to them before or after your presentation says you aren’t interested in topics about their workday. Or to put it another way, you only want to “sell” the library.

Lack of Eye Contact – This is much like the unengaged posture. It gives the impression that you have tuned the speaker out. Eye contact is often associated with honesty. As Daskal notes, it’s not that you stare at the speaker, that wouldn’t be natural. Indeed, it could be seen as trying to intimidate or disparage the speaker, but you do want to make regular eye contact and not be looking off elsewhere.

Drumming Fingers – Although usually done unconsciously, it sends an obvious message of boredom or impatience. It’s an almost stereotypical but clear sign of being disengaged.

Looking Distracted – Daskal puts is well: If people don’t have your full attention, they won’t give you their full respect. How many faculty meetings have you attended where people are checking their phones? When you are with other people, this is when it is key to stay engaged. Take notes. Ask questions. Be involved.  

Crossing Your Arms—A classic way of shutting down by visually and physically closing yourself off. When kids do it, you know they don’t want to hear you. You are saying the same thing. Possibly accompanying it with drumming your fingers.

Fidgeting—Let jiggling, toe or pen tapping, continual shifts in position or slouching from one side to the other. You may not even be aware that you’re doing it, but if you are, it’s signaling distraction and lack of attention. Daskal suggests if it’s your response to nervousness, seek a coach to help you.

Multitasking—Many of us multitask on a regular basis, but it’s important to shut down that impulse anytime you are in a situation where relationships can be built. Not only does it send the wrong message, but studies show that it’s inefficient and it sends a message that other things are more worthy of your attention.

How many of these do you do? As you start recognizing them and preventing them from occurring, become aware of the messages others are sending. It will help you to better respond to them. Make sure your words and body match the message you want to send to build stronger relationships with students, teachers, and administrators.


ON LIBRARIES: Being Charismatic

According to John R. P. French and Bertram Raven there are five types of power. The fifth type, which they call Referent Power, is the power of charisma. Different manifestations of power can contribute or detract from being a successful leader. Charismatic leaders are very powerful, but as history has shown, they can use their power for good or ill. You have undoubtedly encountered charismatic administrators and teachers in your schools.

Watching these people in action is amazing.  Everything around them seems to flow so smoothly. People—students and colleagues—respond to them easily, and things get done apparently effortlessly.  While it may be true that some people are naturally charismatic and born leaders, all is not lost if you don’t have the ability naturally.  You can learn to be a leader, and you can learn to be charismatic.

Charisma is a rarely discussed soft skill, but as with many soft skills, it is more effective than knowledge and skill.  When combined with knowledge and skill, it results in great leadership.  You have the skill sets, now build your charisma.

Loue Solomon explains 6 Ways to Learn to Radiate Charisma If You Don’t Have It at First. If you click to the article, you’ll read that it’s directed to the business world, but the method works very well for us.

  1. Be attentive – This advice keeps recurring because it’s vital, and we don’t always do it well or consistently. When someone is speaking with you, are you thinking of the next thing you have to do? Sometimes we are stopped at an inopportune time, and we are twitching waiting for the person to complete whatever they have to say so we can get on with what we were doing. They will get the message. Why should they want to be with you when you have no time for them? Instead, be honest. Tell them you want to hear what they have to say but now isn’t a good time then let them know when you can listen more attentively.
  1. Recognize humanness before rank Although phrased in terms more suited to the business world, it applies to us as well. There is a hierarchy in schools, and some of us lose opportunities to build important relationships when we react to people based on that hierarchy. You are working with a student and a teacher comes in with an important question. How you handle this will speak volumes to the student. Rather than telling the student to “wait a minute,” address the teacher and ask for a minute or two to complete with the student.  A variation on this is when an administrator comes in while you are working with a teacher or student.  The one you are with deserves your attention.  If you have to wrap it up quickly, show you know and will be back to check if there are any questions. 
  1. Draw people out- Be curious about others. Compliment them on something you admire or notice.  Ask questions. People enjoy talking about themselves.  When they do, a connection forms—as long as you are listening. The more you know about someone, the more you know and understand their wants and needs.  Knowing that helps you meet them better and they come to appreciate and value who and what you are. 
  1. Notice your second language–By now you are well aware of the messages you send (and receive) non-verbally. Smiling is always a welcoming invitation to others. It doesn’t mean you have a broad smile all day long. It would look ridiculous. Rather, have a soft smile as you walk the halls and as you work. Then when someone approaches you, your smile widens in welcome. You look the person in the eye, letting them know you are focused on them. With the smile on your face, as long as your mind isn’t going elsewhere, your body will follow in extending the welcome. 
  1. Show strength in your vulnerability–This is tough. It feels risky because it can be, but it’s about honest human contact. Share personal stories as appropriate. It opens the avenue of communication. Whether the stories are funny or show a mistake you made, it shows others you are human. Not perfect, but open to always learning. 
  1. Never try to fake it–When you are interacting with others, faking it never works and it will result in the opposite of what you are trying to achieve. Becoming charismatic is not about manipulating people. It’s about connecting so you can work better together and accomplish more.

Practice these steps in your personal life as well.  Charisma should not be something you just turn on at work. Make your life easier – radiate charisma. And I’ll trust you to use your power for good.

ON LIBRARIES: Managing Confrontation

No matter who or how you are, at some point someone is going to get angry with you.  How you respond is a demonstration of your leadership skills. Your ability to manage the situation will affect your relationships and possibly your reputation. The “attack” can come from any direction –a teacher, and administrator, a student.  There are basic strategies to deal with all of them as well as some specifics. Knowing these in advance will help you through a stressful situation and potentially result in a positive outcome.

When someone comes to you angry at something you supposedly did, pause before responding.  Let the other party fully express themselves. That is likely what they most want. To be heard.  As they talk, take time to breathe.  Depending on your personality, your natural response will be to attack or defend and neither is a good solution. It will only escalate the confrontation.

My favorite example of diffusing a nasty interchange occurred when I had started a new position as the high school librarian in the early days of automation. A teacher stormed into the library and began haranguing my clerk.  I stepped in immediately and asked the teacher to come into my office.

The tirade slowly ended. In between the “how dare you,” and “you had no right to,” was the core of the complaint which stemmed from a system the previous librarian created. My first thought was, “I just got here. It’s not my fault.”  Rather than engage that way, I let her know I would fix the problem as soon as possible.  I also consciously relaxed my body during the conversation. This added to my personal sense of calm and allowed me to stay focused on the teacher’s concern.   By dealing with the message rather than the method of delivery, I was able to calm her and fixed the situation. Ultimately, the teacher became one of my strongest supporters.

On another occasion, the confrontation wasn’t loud, but it was challenging.  In the late ’90s was the leader for the district librarian and was meeting with the assistant superintendent who began by stating my repeated requests to flexibly schedule elementary librarians was ludicrous. He had observed one lesson where the librarian used a filmstrip on how a book is made starting with a tree.  He felt a classroom teacher could have done the same, and it was a waste of valuable time.

Once again, the person on the attack had a point.  I agreed it was an unfortunate lesson, and my agreement took the wind out of his sails.  He was prepared for an argument.  I said it showed we needed proper professional development opportunities so we could deliver the program students needed.   I earned his respect for that one.

My recipe for managing confrontations:

  1. Pause
  2. Listen to the whole complaint/concern without contemplating your response.
  3. Use the time to relax your body and calm yourself.
  4. Respond to the core of the issue.

Anne Rubin authored a post on The Principal’s Guide to Angry Parents which contains good advice for librarians as well.  Her recommendations are similar to my own.

  1. Stay Calm – Meeting anger with anger is a guarantee you will lose.
  2. Cut It Off – Recognize when the person had gone beyond acceptable limits. Change your body language. You can raise your hands to indicate, “stop.” Then try something like, we can’t resolve this now.  I will get back to you on the issue.  Using email will help you document the interchange if necessary.
  3. Protect Others – I stepped in quickly when the teacher was berating my clerk. You are the leader. Any problems are your responsibility.
  4. Don’t Take It Personally – It rarely has anything to do with you. It’s usually a situation that for some reason has frustrated the teacher or administrator at this time. Find the reasons and you’ll be able to change the situation. This is usually is true for why a student became angry with you.
  5. Know When Enough Is Enough – This is very much like Cut It Off. You can say, “This is not the best way for us to deal with problems. Let’s find another approach.” Your composure could make them angrier if they’re not ready to work with you and still want to be mad or right, but if you maintain it, you will bring the discourse to an end.
  6. Create Guidelines for Behavior- Rubin suggests principals create guidelines for others’ behavior. Since you can’t do this, you can do it for you.  Be aware what your limits are so you know when to “cut it off” and when “enough is enough.”

Most people don’t enjoy confrontations, but we all get caught up in them. The only thing you can control in this situation is you so the more tools you have, the better. Look to understand what is fueling the other person and how to tone down the rhetoric.  People will come to realize that you know how to manage these stressful interchanges.  It makes you more trustworthy and demonstrates your leadership ability.