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Conversational Cues

Last night I was giving a workshop on effective body language techniques to detect deception. One of the participants in the body language workshop asked me how you can tell when it is time to talk in a conversation. That may seem like an odd question. But I believe many people have a hard time reading nonverbal cues for turn-taking because they spend so much time on e-mail and the phone, that they haven’t had the practice and experience in picking up the language of the body. Just like any other language, it takes experience.

For example, as a person completes what they are saying, they may drop their arms and lean back, close their mouth and make eye contact as a way to seek feedback on what they just said and in effect allow someone else a turn to speak. A person wanting to speak next may raise an arm or a finger as if to grasp the turn from the speaker, or step or lean forward or open their mouth and/or puff up their chest with air in preparation to speak.

Regulators: Conversational Flow and “It’s Time to Go” Behavior

Regulators are the body cues that act like the hot and cold handles on a water faucet. They help with the flow, length and ending of spoken messages. They include movements such as an upraised finger to indicate, “wait one moment before you interrupt” or rapid head nods to signal “let me in, I want to talk.” Regulators help us figure out whose turn it is and when to give up our turn talking. They can also send signals such as, "Hey, bud, I am not ready to give up my turn."

In my interpersonal skills class, I often differentiate between what I call Turtle communicators who like slow-paced conversations with pauses and silence between thoughts, and Rabbit communicators who like fast-paced communication with overlapping conversations and no silences. In fact, Rabbits hate silences and feel it their duty to fill them up with sound.

I recommend that Turtles use regulators such as an upraised finger to indicate they are not ready to give up their turn, or when they feel interrupted, to use the upraised palm stop emblem to say “shut up now.” I recommend that Rabbits pay closer attention to the person with whom they are talking. Rabbits get so excited and involved in what they are saying that they do not look at the other person or persons to even notice the illustrators.

Regulators are especially important when we are greeting someone or saying goodbye. Have you ever had someone come into your office or home who just did not pick up on the fact that the conversation was over! Research by Knapp, Hart and Fredric in 1973 identified the following polite forms of leave-taking cues and their accompanying messages:

  • pointing your legs and feet away from the person and toward the door (I’m out of here.)
  • a forward lean (I got it, let me go.)
  • breaking eye contact (I am through taking in information.)
  • nodding behavior (Got it. I understand.)

They added that the impolite ways to say farewell include:

  • leveraging - that is placing the hands on the knees or legs as if you are ready to push up and move out of the chair any second
  • major trunk movement such as shifting in your chair, straightening up or standing
  • explosive hand movements to some part of your body such as hitting your thigh in exasperation because you would like to whop the other person up the side of the head for not recognizing it is time to leave. And one of my favorites . . .
  • turning your heart towards your computer screen and putting your hands on your computer keys. (Actually I see people turn to the computer when someone comes into their office to signal “I do not have time to talk. I have 49 million emails to respond to.”)
  • standing up and shaking hands while they are still talking. (Now that is subtle.)

Are they bored?

Look for signals that show that someone has shut down or turned off. A prospect may turn away from you or slump in the chair. Sometimes people will lean backwards and lazily rest their arm around the back of the chair or in mock nap time posture by slumping forward in their chair, leaning or lying across the table. They may also put their head to the side or down, break eye contact, fix their eyes into space, close their eyes for brief or even long periods. They may have a vacant look on their face because they aren’t tuned in.

Are they frustrated, impatient or ready to go?

If a person has gone from boredom to irritation, there may be big hints that they want to move on to another point or are ready to leave the room, such as checking their watches or their PDAs. If they are extroverted types, such as salespeople, they may symbolically run from the room by crossing their feet and moving the dangling foot quickly up and down, jiggling the crossed-over knee, or tapping the foot.

Patti teaches effective communication techniques in her one-on-one coaching sessions. To learn more visit