Expert: Nonverbal skills are more important in era of masks, video calls
We all know the nonverbal cues you give off can say more about you than the words you speak.
But in a world of face masks and video meetings, do nonverbal skills still matter?
Alison Henderson, owner of Moving Image Consulting in Downers Grove, unequivocally says body language and soft skills are more important now.
As faces are hidden behind masks and in-person meetings are replaced by small boxes on computer screens, people will be focusing more on what they can see of you to make judgments and observations, the executive coach says.
Not seeing your full face or gestures triggers the human "fight or flight" behavior, she said, putting the people you're talking to into a defensive mode.
"Our brains are wired to protect us and we tend to go negative first," she said. "We become suspicious, whether it's a Zoom meeting or if we have a mask on.
"There's always that kind of 'Can I trust you?", knee-jerk reaction," she added. "The circumstances we're living with now mean we need to be conscious of that and how we come across to alleviate that, whether it's with co-workers or customers."
Body language is still important -- even in video meetings -- and facial expressions a top priority, Henderson said.
At the top of her list, you should keep a pleasant expression of your face, especially when you're listening to others.
"A lot of our resting faces are very serious looking or frowning, and people start worrying," she said.
That's especially true with managers and executives.
"If you look unhappy, then they think they said the wrong thing or that you're unhappy with them, and they start to worry."
Even if you're dealing with someone in person but from behind a mask, it's important to smile, she said.
"Make sure you are smiling through your eyes, to where you get the crinkles on the sides of your eyes," Henderson said.
"That's really important because everybody looks like we're about to rob a bank," she added. "We know these people aren't a threat but our brain says they're a threat, so we're always in battle with that."
When you are in a video meeting, Henderson said looking at the people on the screen provides a natural feel. If your camera is separate from the screen, test to see what looks the best.
"You may have to look into the camera to seem engaged. Looking at your screen might create the appearance that you are half listening to the meeting while doing something else."
Being conscious of gestures is also important, Henderson said. When meetings were done in person, it was easy to interpret gestures because everyone could see all of the speaker. But in video conferences, we are limited to a head and shoulders view, so gestures can be missed or misinterpreted.
She recommends gesturing at shoulder level or above to make the point clear.
Henderson touts video conferences as "a great equalizer" for people. Those who take seats to position themselves in alliance to the boss or one another in a conference room have been replaced by video squares that put everyone at the same level, she said.
"Everybody's squares are the same on a virtual call, and you can't control whose square is next to yours or somebody else's," she said. "So jockeying for position around the conference table doesn't happen."
Henderson recommends using genuine backgrounds over virtual ones, and they should be free of clutter with a piece of art or a bookshelf behind you. If you can't fashion that, a foldable screen or curtain behind you will do in a pinch.
"Blank walls tend to give a floating effect. Our brains like to be able to place you somewhere," she said.
Above all, do not multi-task ... people can see you not paying attention, Henderson notes.
"Remember you have no control over who is looking at you," she said.
And what about the handshake -- that gesture that literally closes every deal in business? Well, COVID-19 has definitely sent that packing, but Henderson sees the mutual head nod becoming the logical deal closer.
"That was naturally what you'd do when you shook hands, your head follows," she said. "So if we get rid of the handshake, we might end up with the nod of agreement."
But she did not rule out the handshake making a comeback in the future, especially if a cure for COVID-19 is found.
"It may be an evolutional thing."
Virtual confidenceHere are some tips to improve your nonverbal skills in the COVID-19 world, recommended by Alison Henderson of Moving Image Consulting in Downers Grove.
In virtual meetings:• Keep a pleasant expression on you face all times, even when you're listening, "Remember somebody's always watching you at all times."
• Look at the person or people on the screen. "It will feel more natural, and you can see their facial and body reactions."
• Keep gestures high so people can see your hands. "You need to raise them, otherwise people are using other nonverbal signals that you're giving off to them."
• Learn to use the mute button and stay on mute when you are not talking.
• For bosses, kick your energy level up a notch "so you look more like your authentic self."
• Also for bosses, ditch the tie and suit. "For men, the more formal they are, the less movement they exhibit."
• Use genuine backgrounds, instead of virtual ones. "Stock and created backgrounds can give you a sharp line around your head and often pixilate gestures when your hands go out of the perfect spot."
• Don't multi-task. "As a group, agree to focus so the meeting can be short."
In-person meetings:• Enunciate and speak a bit louder through a mask. "You have to be more cognizant in being clear in your speech."
• Smile through your eyes "where you get the crinkles on the sides of your eyes."
• Stand at a 45 degree angle to the person, instead of facing head on. "That's more confrontational. If we turn our bodies slightly, it alleviates a little bit of anxiety.'
• Keep your hands visible and gesture with your palms up. "If we gesture and keep palms up, that supplants what's missing from our mouths."