Best face forward

Psychologists and behavioral scientists have long known that facial expressions, hand gestures, and voice tone provide more clues to listeners than the words themselves.Theresa May

“It’s harder to follow cues such as expressions on people’s faces in two dimensions,” says Dr. Carlos Ferran of Pennsylvania State University, who researches technology-mediated communications. Dr. Richard Arvey, a psychologist and professor with the National University of Singapore, agrees. “You can’t see someone frowning on a conference call,” he notes. He uncovered research on the benefits of face-to-face meetings while preparing a report for Hilton Hotels called “Why Face-to-Face Business Meetings Matter.” Studies indicated that 77% percent of people believe that offsite meetings are a necessity not a luxury; 85%believe face-to-face meetings are more likely to result in breakthrough thinking; and 82%believe that meetings bring out the best in people.

Well I don’t know about you, but on balance I don’t feel that many meetings bring out the best in people. Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that we all have far too many meetings, and that they lack firm chairing and full participation.

The face you wear to meetings is a very important contributor to success or failure. In my early career I frequently made the mistake of showing too openly in my facial expression how I felt about the discussions. I didn’t realise it until a client once chastised me for looking ‘very disappointed’ in a meeting where creative ideas were being discussed. It made me think, and encouraged my to try to mask more negative feelings.

In truth, your meeting face is too important to be allowed to compose itself. It needs a strategy. The most common look in any meeting is boredom, which is not great. Looking vacant makes you appear gormless, and slack facial muscles make you look old and tired. Being so bored that you go to sleep is even worse. Yet we see it all the time in early afternoon meetings, and often in leaders who should know better. I have appeared twice in a business panel discussion with the same Kenyan opposition leader and both times he has nodded off. Only to be dragged back from the land of Nod by the embarrassed silence in the room.Nodding off is bad, but nodding is good …if you use the right variation. I spend a great deal of time in Board meetings and let me tell you that the selection of Director nods is more varied than any coffee shop menu. The more complex the discussion the slower the nods. Medium speed nods make you look clever and awake. Short, sharp nods signal affirmation and decision (two of these seem to be optimal).

Smiling is a good and usually makes other people feel better. A great friend of mine likes to advise ‘ show teeth’ just before we go into an adversarial meeting. And it is surprising how infectious smiling can be. But smiling too much makes you seem less serious so I advice scarcity.

Frowning is bad in normal life but very good in meetings. It gives you the appearance of thinking deeply but perhaps implies superiority. Which, come to think of it, might be a good idea in some situations).

Not only does your meeting face affect your reputation, it can also affect your workload. Too eager a face attracts unwanted tasks. So it might be better to find an expression you can use when task and timings are being allocated. The kind of face that says: don’t even think of asking.

Last week I read an excellent piece in the London Financial Times that described the ‘meeting face’ used by the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May as ‘ looking exasperated in a poised way.” It’s a very clever positioning, and absolutely relevant to sorting out the Brexit shambles that thrust her into power. Lucy Kellaway wrote: ‘ Exasperated but poised is as good as it gets. It is superior but never rude. It’s powerful, but not dishonest. It is a bit forbidding, and a little regal. It is just perfect.”

Isn’t it time you stood in front of the mirror to practice your meeting face?

 

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  • Yobdar Bakri

    Great insight, Chris! I often wonder how even marketing managers can sit through meetings with a completely blank look on their faces…is it sometimes a farce to look tough and serious? I tend to sympathise with whoever is communicating with me, so I respect them with an alert attitude and lots of interactive gestures. All face-to-face meetings should have a “soft” element to them, but in Kenya, I find if the meeting participants are not nodding off, they’d rather assume a very serious and cold position. More education must be done to encourage people to open up their body language to allow for more open business relations as well.

    • http://www.chrisharrison.biz Chris Harrison

      Thanks Yobdar, sorry for the delay I have been away.The blank look is a defensive mechanism and unfortunately (as you say) most people have not been encouraged to try other, more animated expressions.I’d like to say that the Millenial generation are more expressive but I don’t see it. I suspect that theme they spend immersed in the screens has something to do with this!