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Emotions and Subtle Forms of Communication

Let’s examine how emotions impact three forms of subtle forms communications, communications that do not rely on words: body language, tone of voice, and mirror neurons.

Body Language. The activities in our limbic system influence our nonverbal behavior, our body language. Our body language provides indicators concerning how we feel, whether we are feeling comfortable and relaxed or whether we are feeling uncomfortable and stressed in response to events within our environment. Table 3-3 provides signals our bodies transmit unconsciously, signals that we can learn to observe in order to understand how those around us are feeling so that we can respond appropriately.

It is important to make a concerted effort to observe the body language of your team and coworkers. If you are an introvert, it may be natural for you to be absorbed in your own thoughts, but in order to have effective situational awareness so that you can be an effective leader, you must pay attention to others. This can help you establish a baseline of behavior for those around you. Then, when you notice that they perform an action that is different from the baseline, you will know that whatever is being said or is taking place in the environment has caused them some form of comfort or discomfort. If something stressful occurs, people engage in pacifying behaviors to make themselves more comfortable, and the greater the stress, the greater the likelihood of the behavior. Their body communicates messages to you that that they did not verbalize, messages that are important to you as a leader. If you observe and mimic their behavior, you will get a sense of how they are feeling.

  • Tone of Voice. Researchers performed a study to analyze the tone of the human voice and the information communicated in tone. The research group was presented with recordings of doctors speaking to their patients. Some of the doctors had been sued for malpractice. The words in the recordings were muffled so that the audience could not tell what the doctors were saying and could only make out their tone. The audience accurately identified the doctors who had been sued for malpractice based on their tone alone. The doctors could not hide their frustration and resentment— their cognitive unconscious revealed their feelings in the tone of their voices (Kehoe, 2011).
  • Mirror Neurons. Has someone ever smiled at you and you found yourself automatically smiling back? Have you ever looked at someone who was upset or sad and found yourself feeling the same way, even when you did not know why the other person was down? Many times when I yawn, my wife also yawns, and I find myself mimicking her when she yawns. Dr. Shad Helmstetter attributes these reactions to mirror or simulating neurons. This is an activity that simulates or infers the actions, feelings, or intentions of others. These neurons fire in our brains as though we are taking the action, even though all we are doing is observing the action. Dr. Helmstetter writes that mirror neurons also cause us to mimic the feelings and attitudes of others. These feelings and attitudes imprint on our brains, causing us to unconsciously respond to what they are experiencing. Neither you nor your communication partner realizes the communication is occurring (Helmstetter, 2013).

The phenomenon of mirror neurons is essential to communications. Critical communications, in which important information needs to be exchanged between IT project leaders and their key stakeholders, need to occur face to face as much as possible. Such a dialogue facilitates the processes of mirror neurons transmitting information, feelings, and attitudes between the IT project leader and the stakeholder. This transmission does not take place in email or video teleconference communications. Introverted IT project leaders can’t be shy about engaging in these faceto-face dialogues. The conversation enables them to communicate ground truth to the stakeholder and the stakeholder to communicate requirements to the IT project leader. Then, when the IT project leader communicates with team members, the stakeholder’s feelings and attitudes can be transmitted from the stakeholder, via the IT project leader, to the team.

Table 3-3 Body Language Activities and Interpretations



Signs of Comfort or Pacification

Signs of Discomfort


People puff out their cheeks to release stress and to pacify themselves.

People touch their cheeks to pacify feelings of nervousness, irritation, and concern.

People rub their foreheads when they are very uncomfortable or if they are struggling with something.

People under stress may yawn excessively.

People block the eye with their fingers and hands as a display of consternation, disbelief, or disagreement.


People cover their neck dimple to pacify insecurities, concerns, even fears.

People “ventilate” their neck areas to reduce stress and pacify themselves.

People touch their neck when they feel uncomfortable, doubtful, or insecure.

Men adjust their ties when feeling insecure or uncomfortable.


People shrug both shoulders when they don’t know something—there is nothing wrong with this.

People raise their shoulders toward the ears like a turtle hiding in its shell if the person is feeling humbled or suddenly loses confidence.

People who shrug only one shoulder are sending an unconvincing message concerning their doubt or lack of knowledge.


People bring themselves closer to each other when they are comfortable with each other.

People splay out on chairs when feeling territorial and comfortable.

People puff up their chests to establish territorial dominance.

People lean away from each other when they disagree. People suddenly cross their arms across their torsos and grip their arms when feeling discomfort.

People breathe deeply, indicated by an expanding and contracting chest, when under stress.


People raise their arms and perform other gravity-defying motions when they are happy and energized.

People spread their arms over chairs to indicate they are confident and comfortable.

People withdraw their arms when they are fearful or upset.

People put their arms behind their back when they do not want to make contact.


People under stress will “cleanse” their palms on their laps to pacify themselves. This may occur under the table. People wring their hands when feeling stressed or concerned.

People bite their nails when they are nervous or insecure.

People stand with their hands on their hips to establish dominance and to communicate their dissatisfaction. Around the world, finger pointing is considered offensive.

People steeple their hands fingertip-to-fingertip when feeling confident.


People cross their legs when they are comfortable.

When people cross their legs and place their knee farther away from the person they are talking to, they are removing the barrier between themselves and the person they are talking to.

While sitting, people clasp their knees and shift their weight to their feet when they are ready to stand up and leave.

When people cross their legs and place their knee between themselves and the person they are talking to, they are using their knee as a barrier.


People point their toes upward when they are in a good mood, thinking or hearing something positive.

People step toward other people when they feel comfortable with each other.

When standing, people turn their feet away from the person they are talking to when they are ready to leave, to end the conversation.

People shift their feet from being flat-footed to “starter position” when they are ready to leave.

People maintain a distance from or step away from other people who they do not feel comfortable with. When sitting, people kick their feet when they feel discomfort.

Someone who normally wiggles or bounces their feet while sitting and then suddenly stops when something is said or occurs is feeling stressed or threatened by the event.

People will suddenly interlock their legs or lock their legs around a chair when feeling discomfort, anxiety, or insecurity.

Data derived from Navarro, J. and Karins, M. (2008). What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to SpeedReading People. [Kindle]. William Morrow Paperbacks.

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