Signs. They are everywhere. They tell us what to do, what to buy, when to buy, where to go, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. Signs tell us when stores are open and when they are closed. Signs lie to us and they tell us the truth.

The signs and messages people display can tell us a lot about them. For example, if we see political signs in a neighbor’s yard, those signs tell us how they vote – which tells us how they feel about certain important issues. Messages on t-shirts can also tell us about a person (where they have vacationed, a favorite musical group, their favorite sports team, or what brand they love).

Bumper stickers can reveal a person’s faith (or not), their sense of humor, or their physical/athletic endeavors. If we read these kinds of signs and messages carefully, they can tell us a lot about people, their values, their beliefs, etc.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had signs on people that told us how they were doing? They are not likely to wear a sign that says, “I am angry, anxious, fearful, upset, disappointed, stressed, confused, embarrassed, etc.” However, their tone of voice, facial expressions, eye movements, and nonverbal cues can tell us a lot about what they are thinking, feeling, or experiencing.

There are times when I am talking to my wife that I can change the outcome of a conversation. For example, I am a big picture guy and my wife is very much a detailed person. I like change and can pivot in an instant. She likes the familiar and change can be stressful for her. So if I am watching her nonverbal signs, I can tell when to stop talking and when to start asking questions. I’ve noticed that when she slightly opens her mouth as if she wants to say something during a conversation – or maybe she’s biting her tongue – she isn’t in agreement with me. When I see this, it’s a warning sign not to continue down the road I am traveling. It’s time to start empathizing, listening, or asking questions. It’s not the time to propose a new idea that is too far out of the box or spring something new on her. 

We need to watch signs with those we lead as well. If you have had a tenured working relationship, you no doubt have picked up signs and patterns of your colleagues. If you haven’t noticed these things, start paying careful attention and use the signs you see to communicate and lead more effectively.

You won’t see these signs if you are in your office, on back-to-back Zoom calls, or have such a rigid schedule that there’s no time for connecting with others. It’s important to make time for checking in with your team members, colleagues, customers, clients, or members. Ask questions that delve deeper than the proverbial “How are you doing?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?”. Those are good starter questions but continue to probe. For example, try asking, “What are you working on today that is challenging you?” or “How can I help you solve a pressing problem, respond to a challenging customer, or increase your productivity?”. Listen carefully to their answers and check for understanding. You will learn a lot by paying attention to the signs and signals they give in their responses.

Maybe it’s time to start searching for more “people signs” and reading those signs more effectively.


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