Coaching Millennials on Body Language

Did you know that, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules: Twelve Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, “vision trumps all other senses” when it comes to perception? That, in fact, it’s “probably the single best tool we have for learning anything”?

In no area of business communication is visual acuity more important than that of body language. People’s first impressions of others are powerful (and difficult to overcome), and reading other people’s faces and gestures is a critical skill.

Yet according to numerous articles, Millennials are especially weak in this area. For example,body language photo

  • A Wall Street Journal article makes this claim in its title: “Why Gen-Y Johnny Can’t Read Nonverbal Cues: An Emphasis on Social Networking Puts Younger People at a Face-to-Face Disadvantage.”
  • An article based on employer interviews (Alsop) also blames Millennials’ “extensive reliance on online communication” for inhibiting their learning “how to speak in a polished manner, listen attentively, and read others’ expressions and body language.” Employers are thus finding “that their young hires are awkward in their interpersonal interactions and ill-prepared to collaborate effectively with teammates and develop relationships with clients.”
  • The Harvard Business Review blog posted an article by a psychologist who has collected “solid evidence” that “exposure to digital media reconfigures the neural networks of young individuals, possibly at the expense of empathy and social skills.” Their resulting “inability to pick up on nonverbal cues” can be a serious professional disability.

You may have gathered your own evidence from your classrooms. My colleagues and I have noticed that our students are often facially nonresponsive in class (as if they’re watching a tv show) and that the facial expressions they do make are sometimes inappropriate (as if they can’t be seen). One of my colleagues got the idea to discuss this issue with her class, offering such advice as “nod if you agree” and “do not roll your eyes when you teacher says something you don’t like.” We now have a heightened sensitivity to this issue and watch for opportunities to advise our students to be more attentive to body language—both their own and that of others.

A recent book by Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist at Columbia Business School, points out that we all have difficulty reading each other, as well as projecting the emotion we want to project (“Mixed Signals: Why People Misunderstand Each Other“). For example, “how you look when you are slightly frustrated isn’t all that different from how you look when you are a little concerned, confused, disappointed, or nervous.” Because humans are “lazy processors,” the people reading you may not pick up on fine visual distinctions.

But Millennials are at a special disadvantage because so much of their social time has been online. One interviewed employer noted, “Where we really see interpersonal issues is where students have to self-regulate when they are told no,” and others complained that the informal nature of texts and tweets have made job applicants too “curt” or “casual” (Alsop).

So look for moments when you can do some body-language coaching. You might tell students how to look receptive when a guest is speaking, or have them practice keeping their expressions under control in a disagreement. You can also analyze speakers in videos—especially those of job interviews—to discuss how facial expressions and gestures add to or detract from the speaker’s communication.

Do you have other methods for raising your students’ body-language IQ? If so, please share what works for you. And if you haven’t been discussing body language with your classes—now’s the time.


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