When it comes to the art of giving feedback, there is ample wisdom doing the rounds. We’ve spoken about the best practices of delivering feedback, and even what to do when someone resists it. Yet, one thing many of us overlook is the non-verbal aspect of feedback.

Imagine this – you walk into your new workplace, and are greeted by a colleague who is sitting on a chair with his feet up on the desk, and his arms across his chest. He says, “We are happy to have you in our team,” and looks away. How would you feel about this interaction? Probably awkward or put off.

Why? Though your colleague’s words might have been sincere, his body language did not express the same. And 70% of our communication is non-verbal in nature, says Prof. Susan Jones, University of Minnesota. Whether we realize it or not, we constantly read each other’s facial expressions and body language, using the signals to make sense of how we feel and think about others. It is also a way people relate to each other – think status, power, affinity, etc.

Given its subconscious impact, it becomes necessary to explore how non-verbal cues guide our feedback process, and what we can do to ensure a positive and trusting experience. Here are the cues that matter:

Eye contact. A study by Stephen Janik and Rodney Wellens, University of Miami, found that 43.4% of our attention is focused on people’s eyes. This, because our eyes express maximum emotions. Research shows that we can predict people’s emotional states by just making eye contact with them, and it is the first step to establishing empathy.

For a successful feedback session, make direct eye contact and acknowledge the presence of the other person. This is also a way of showing attention – another non-verbal cue, and a rare one at that. It is a fact that our attention wanders almost 50% of the time! So, if you aren’t attentive, people can tell.

Breath. Among the more subtle cues, our breathing changes with how we feel. It gets rapid and shallow when we are stressed or angry, and tiredness or frustration brings forth sighing. What’s interesting is that our breathing triggers emotions in others – quick breathing heightens others’ attention, and excessive sighing might annoy them as it could signal boredom!

Thus, before a feedback conversation, take some deep, calming breaths. When you exhale, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, so focus on breathing out longer than you breathe in.

Voice. It’s not just what we say, but also how we say it, that makes a difference. Our voice tones give away how we feel, and constitute 38% of our communication. The actual words – just about 8%. There is research that predicts the health of relationships just based on how people talk to each other, and how much defensiveness, contempt or blame is present in their tones.

When giving feedback, especially constructive ones, practice prior to the conversation so you can weed out any irritation, frustration, or disappointment you may feel. It’ll help create safety!

The idea behind paying attention to such non-verbal cues – to create positive relationships with employees, and a compassionate work culture. After all, it adds up to a shared human experience. Putting intention behind our interactions is foundational.

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