You can almost hear the clock ticking in the background. The deadline for your presentation is just minutes away and you are nowhere close to finishing it. The reason? A talkative colleague who loves sharing his stories with you and being in the limelight just won’t quit! He is done for the day and decides to visit your cabin and share a bit of his day with you, failing to pay heed to the presentation slides open on your computer. We face such people everyday – be it in the driveway to the office, in the lobby, during lunch break, or even in more formal settings like a meeting or negotiation. The question then is: how do you tell such people that you are no longer interested in what they have to say or that it is someone else’s turn to make a point? The easiest way, of course, is to just word it out. But as humans, we tend to want to follow the “display rules” of our society and not be so direct and upfront. In this case, there are various non-verbal strategies one can use – some subtle and some not so subtle. Here they are:
Using your eyes: We all know that making eye contact with the person speaking is the most direct way of indicating our interest in listening to them. So you can probably start with making lesser eye contact and, if the hint is not taken, make no eye contact at all. However, this strategy does not always work in cultures where making direct eye contact is discouraged.
Forced smiles: Using forced or polite smiles during conversations can help you to get back your turn to speak.
Nods to the rescue: I have seen a number of people increase the frequency of nods to such an extent that the speaker realises that the listener is in a hurry to finish the conversation.
Back channelling: The above strategy can also be combined with the “hmms” and the “ahas” that we generally use to indicate to the speaker that we are listening to them. Increasing the frequency and loudness of “hmms” (now changed to “hmm-hmms”) can be a pronounced way to tell the speaker that his capacity to talk has surpassed your level of tolerance.
Stop responding: The stark opposite to the above two strategies would be a ‘no response’ strategy, where you stop responding with any body language cues whatsoever. This would ideally tell the speaker your mind has started to wonder, making him pause in between sentences, which can be a chance for you to grab to make your point.
Closed body position: We generally keep our bodies leaning forward and with arms on the table or resting in the lap when we are interested in the dialogue being delivered. It is generally taught to the listeners of speeches and presentations to keep arms unfolded so that the speaker would feel a connection with his audience. So if he is no longer speaking about anything of interest to you, try folding your arms and leaning back a bit. Whether he is trained to read body language or not, this particular body position is one that most can sense and understand.
Orientation: Facing away from the speaker or pointing your feet away from him should signal to his subconscious mind that something is not right with your interest level in what he is conveying. If the conversation is one to one, this is a more effective strategy. It can also work if you are steering the meeting or conversation, or if you are the leader of the team.
Stepping back: This works in networking events and conference breaks where we are generally standing during the interactions. Since such events become, for a lot of people, grounds to make their great qualities known by one and all, they might be aloof to subtle cues like less nodding or less smiling. The more prominent way then would be to take step back from the speaker and distance yourself physically. He will surely notice this.
Starter’s position: In informal settings, where you are seated during the conversation and in the company of someone who is really talkative and not ready to let you budge, you can assume the ‘starter’s position’, which is where you hold onto the side armrests and slightly get-up without actually rising from the seat. This shows your readiness to stand-up and leave, and signals to the speaker that the time you can spare listening to him is almost up.
Non-verbal communication works well with most of us since, as humans, we are attuned to picking up cues from people around us. Language came to us much later in our evolution and so we still use non-verbals much more frequently than words to indicate our minds and desires.