Reading Digital Body Language in Virtual Meetings

By Randy Conley and Betty Dannewitz

Hybrid work is here, and it will become more commonplace as our world becomes more interconnected. But the virtual workplace brings a challenge: reading people’s body language.

Studies show that 70% to 80% of our communications in face-to-face situations come from nonverbal clues such as posture and facial expressions. But it’s hard to read these cues in a virtual environment. Here are some tips to help you become a digital detective so you can understand what people are saying with their bodies.

Body Language 101

Although many of us intuitively know how to read body language, it’s such an important topic that it’s worth sharing the basics.

  • Attentive listeners sit up straight and look straight ahead. This shows they are paying attention.
  • Emotional reactions are often revealed in the eyebrows.
  • Lips pressed tightly together usually indicates that the person doesn’t agree with you.
  • A quick head nod means “I understand” and “Let’s move on.”
  • A slow head nod means “I’m trying to understand.”
  • Sitting back with arms crossed is a defensive pose, especially when it’s coupled with jutting the chin out or tilting the head back. Sitting with arms crossed can also indicate concentration when coupled with leaning in and a focused gaze.
  • Touching the face is psychologically calming.

This information can help you be a digital detective and understand how your people are feeling.

Clues in the Voice

When reading digital body language, we need to dial up our listening skills—especially since what we hear is one of the few reliable clues we have in a virtual context. This means taking note of a person’s tone and inflection. What is their tone telling us? Do they sound pleased, frustrated, or anxious? Does their inflection match the tone of the conversation?

Also take note of the pace of speech. The more anxious we are, the faster we speak. The calmer we are, the slower we speak.

Tips You Can Use

Here are a few tips you can use to improve your digital body language.

Set Virtual Team Norms

Setting team norms for how people conduct themselves in virtual meetings is a powerful tactic. For example, some leaders set a team norm that everyone must be on camera (except, of course, for brief breaks like getting a drink). If the expectation is that we're all on our webcams, that is the agreed-upon norm. Any deviation from the norm offers an opportunity for one-on-one discussions.

During a virtual meeting, be sure to:

  • Look at the camera and not at yourself. When you look at the camera, you appear interested and engaged. Looking at yourself can be distracting to viewers.
  • When people seem disengaged, ask them a question to keep them involved.
  • Avoid speaking for long periods. Doing that is a sure way to lose your audience.
  • Don’t call people out in public. For example, if someone habitually is late, it’s best to discuss this in a private, one-on-one conversation.

Speak So You Can’t Be Misunderstood

Be clear in what you want to communicate. Miscommunication is a frequent challenge in the workplace. Here is some evidence.

The problem is human beings are hardwired to focus on threats. If there is a lack of clarity in any communication, people are likely to assume the worst. When you add in a virtual element—one where we can’t read much body language—clear communication and good listening are even more important.

Being explicit about your intentions in a meeting is essential. You can start the meeting by sharing what you want to accomplish and then repeating it a few times to help people stay focused.

Be Alert to Multitasking

Some people multitask during Zoom calls. A few clues to look for are:

  • They frequently go on and off camera.
  • They ask you to repeat a question you just asked.
  • They seem disengaged.

Catching a person multitasking during a meeting may warrant a one-on-one conversation. The same holds true if you know someone is posting on their personal social media accounts during working hours.

Giving a redirection via a phone call is preferable to doing it with an email or text. Leaders should remember that by virtue of their position, they may create fear or intimidation in some employees. A phone call helps the receiver to read your body language, which can reduce misunderstandings.

Be a Role Model

It’s important that leaders role model the behaviors they want their people to demonstrate. For example, if you don’t want people checking their phones during meetings, place your phone face down on the table. If you scroll on your phone during a meeting, you’re giving permission for your people to do the same.

Clear Communication Is Better for Everyone

Now that you know how to read digital body language and learned some tactics for conducting an online meeting, take off your detective hat and enjoy your newfound knowledge. Better yet, share some of these tips at your next meeting. Communication is always more effective when everyone knows the basics of body language.

About the Authors

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is a Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is the co-author of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe helping them build trust in the workplace. Most recently, Randy is the co-author, together with Ken Blanchard, of the new book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust.

Betty Dannewitz

Betty Dannewitz is a Learning Solutions Architect for The Ken Blanchard Companies. In that role, Betty specializes in multimedia, augmented reality strategy, production, and implementation, L&D strategy, and leadership and management training. Betty brings a proven ability for strategic thinking to the development and implementation of innovative programs to drive corporate initiatives, expand employee knowledge, and increase engagement.


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