Dear Dr. Graham:

I’ve learned a lot from what you’ve said about nonverbal communication and how employees can identify and address the nonverbal communication that might be offending others. But what I want to know is how to talk to a peer about her nonverbal communication. 

I meet daily with another marketing manager to coordinate our teams’ work. Sometimes when I meet with “Jane” she is fine. But often she sighs and rolls her eyes at me when I ask a question. Last week she sighed and stomped away when I asked her about an open house we were hosting in Montgomery. She does this in front of our team members as well as the college interns our company is trying to recruit.

I think I need to talk with her about how her nonverbals are affecting me and my team. How do I say it?

Perplexed Manager

Dear Perplexed,

I agree that you need to address this problem. Here’s a series of steps to consider:

1. Ask Jane if she has time to talk privately.

2. Frame the conversation in a non-threatening, collegial manner. You might say something like, “I value you so much as a colleague, and I care about you. That’s why I want to give you some feedback that I think will be helpful. I hope you trust me enough that you will do the same for me, either now or whenever you think I need it.”

3. Describe her behavior and its effect on you. It’s important to simply describe what she is doing. Avoid assuming you understand her intention. You might say something like, “Sometimes when I ask you about specific projects, like the open house in Montgomery, you sigh loudly and walk away. I don’t know how to interpret your response, but it does seem like something is wrong when you do that. Can you tell me what is going on for you when this happens?”

4. Listen intently to her response. Don’t interrupt. When she is through speaking, repeat what you understood her to say in a non-judgmental way. An example: “So, you feel like I’m asking unnecessary questions. You’re frustrated, because you think I should already know the answer.”

5. Suggest an alternate behavior. Say something like, “It’s my understanding that we’re supposed to work together on the Montgomery project, but when you sigh and walk away, it makes it hard for us to collaborate. And it doesn’t model the collaborative behavior we want our employees and interns to learn. Can we come up with a different way to deal with your frustration about my questions? Maybe we can talk after each planning meeting if you think I am asking unnecessary questions.”

6. Problem solve together. Ask Jane for her own ideas about coming up with an alternative behavior/response/reaction.

7. Thank Jane for being open to the conversation. You might summarize this way: “I was a bit nervous about bringing this feedback to you. I don’t want to hurt you or threaten our relationship. Thank you for being the type of colleague who is open to this type of discussion. I appreciate you.”

While these steps have been very helpful to many of my clients, I must note two cautions. First, a direct conversation with a peer is almost always the best way to initiate feedback. As I’m sure you know, going above a colleague’s head with any complaint should be a last resort, as it erodes trust — and trust is very hard to rebuild. But if someone is known to be volatile or unreasonable, you may need to speak with your supervisor or your colleague’s supervisor instead of having a direct conversation.

Second, if you have that direct conversation and Jane becomes upset or defensive, keep asking her questions. Listen and paraphrase what you understand her to be saying. Doing so does not imply agreement. However, by summarizing her viewpoint you are more likely to diffuse her emotion, which will allow her to truly participate in the conversation.

I applaud your efforts to address this “elephant in the room.” Such efforts are not only likely to strengthen your working relationship with Jane but also to help you refine the highly-effective communication skills that can prove invaluable throughout your career.

If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with me directly. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “Newbie Manager” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.