Photo: Ben White
It would be less confusing to live in a world where we always mean what we say. But as a general rule, most people hate conflict, so they would rather drop hints and clues couched in softer language before they resort to direct dissent. It’s an understandable defense mechanism in the workplace. No one enjoys being a downer with bad news for their boss.
But by learning how to read a room and pick up on cues that people are trying to give you, you can avoid being blindsided. Before you get verbal confirmation of important news, there will be body language tells and word choices that are foreshadowing layoffs, hirings, and firings to come.
Here are tips on how to understand subtext in the office and look underneath the underneath.
You need to pay attention to what is not said just as much as what’s said. If someone is strangely silent on a subject, their reticence may be a clue that something’s weighing on their mind. You can broach this silence by asking an open-ended question like, “What do you think?” to see what the other person’s not saying.
How people deliver information to you will also be revealing. Drumming fingers, fidgeting in seats, and looking at phones indicates nerves, impatience, boredom, or at their worst, that the person is not fully present in their job.
Eye contact is one of the easiest tells to read. When someone looks you in the eye, it indicates confidence, authority, and presence. Their attention is fully on you. When you don’t get eye contact, it’s nonverbal feedback that something’s up. When someone is looking at the ground instead of at you, that suggests insecurity. In extreme cases, your colleagues may be physically avoiding you because of impending bad news like layoffs.
When things are going well, we should look in sync with our conversation partners. When they nod, you nod. When they uh-huh, you don’t veer off and go ah-ah. As body language Patti Wood told Business Insider, “It might look like you’re dancing with the other person. If you don’t ‘dance’ with your teammates it can make you look you’re not interested in what they are saying, you are not a good team player, or, in the extreme cases, that you are lying.”
Listen for repetition in reports. If an employee keeps saying something again and again, it’s not because they’re obsessing over a topic, it’s because they think you’re not listening. If your boss keeps mentioning certain words around you, it’s to draw your attention to what they think you’re not doing. Watch out for these and you’ll find navigation much easier.
Oh, and by the way, recognizing the repetition isn’t enough: you should feel some interest in creating a solution for it. When things are repeated, they are usually significant problems. Learn to be part of the solution for them.
Listen for warning-word clues. There are words that deserve special attention. “Frustrated,” “disappointed,” and “uncomfortable” are words that suggest far more negativity than they say.
If someone says that they’re “frustrated,” for instance, it doesn’t indicate they’re annoyed; it usually means that they are near the end of their rope or thinking about quitting.
Similarly, if your boss tell you they’re “disappointed” in your performance, it doesn’t mean they’re sad. It means that firing you has crossed their mind. At the very least, it means they’ve judged that you can’t get results and you won’t be getting big projects any time soon.
And if an employee tells you that a colleague makes them uncomfortable, take this admission very seriously. It indicates much more than discomfort; it indicates feeling an actual threat.
But on the other hand, there are positive words that hint at good news. If a job interviewer says more than just “we’ll be in touch,” that signals you have more than a chance.
The lifelong job with these context clues is to learn to hear what people aren’t saying, so that you can become an expert interpreter of your colleagues and bosses’ intentions.
Push to understand more
With these observations, you can become smarter. But it’s also important not to assume you’re always right. There’s always a potential variance in behavior.
How do you know what’s going on?
First, verify what you think you’re hearing. You can literally repeat it back to the person: “You said you’re disappointed. If I understand correctly, that means you wanted things to go a very different way. What was the outcome you wanted?”
Second, participate in the solution: “I am hearing that you’re frustrated. What specific things could we do to potentially change that?”
Third, keep your ear to the ground. Don’t start any gossip, but you can verify with colleagues whether your observations hold water: “Have you noticed that Bill is behaving differently? What have you seen?”
The more information you can get, the more able you are to make informed decisions about your career.