Reading Your Board’s Body Language

Those who share leadership with you do not always communicate with just words.

by Cal LeMon

You knew something was wrong. This conference room did not feel right. The problem was not the agenda. There was nothing but routine issues for this monthly ministry board meeting. But, the “caution light” between your ears began to rapidly blink as soon as the meeting started.

Have you had this experience?

Did you say to yourself, Forget about it … you have had a hard day … don’t get into the victim role … you are imagining problems that do not exist … get a grip and move on?

Body Language in the Body of Christ

As a professional, you openly admit those who share leadership with you do not always communicate with just words. Their demeanor, mood, and even how they have decided to sit at the table will broadcast a barrage of messages.

The next time you and your board members slide into those subtle leather, overstuffed, swiveling chairs to begin your next meeting, watch and listen for the real message — the message communicated without the use of verbs, gerunds, direct objects, or prepositions.

Julius Fast, author of Body Language, reminds us that we only transmit seven percent of all face-to-face communication through words. Thirty-seven percent of a verbal conversation is tone of voice and the remaining 56 percent is facial expression.

So, the body of Christ, the Church, the ecclesia, conducts most of its internal conversations … nonverbally.

When Board Members Scream Without Moving Their Lips

It is Wednesday evening, the appointed time for the board of spiritual leaders in your ministry to make intelligent and spiritually intuitive decisions. You, the ranking spiritual leader, offer an emotionally warm verbal greeting in the first few seconds and then you invite Divinity to join your deliberations.

When eyelids pop into the open position, you begin to hear from everyone in the room. You must admit that the communication process has instantaneously moved to the “on” position … without anyone, including you, articulating one syllable.

Body language, or the science called kinesics, will silently start to transmit messages like, “Watch out, he is very unhappy about something, … or everything, … again.”

How about, “Better keep this meeting short; these people obviously missed the teaching that love, joy, peace, and patience are fruits of the Spirit.”

Or, “Wow! Everyone is positive tonight … hey, this is the meeting to float the idea of an additional staff position.”

When your board members start sending and receiving messages across the polished conference table, kinesics, or body language, will become the predominant communication channel. We all know the real message is in eyes rolling to the ceiling when someone makes a suggestion, the hand slowly morphing into a fist at the mention of someone’s name, or a mouth easily turning up at the corners when someone passes around a photo of a 2-week-old baby.

The Gift of Interpretation

When the church called you to this place of ministry, you arrived with an amazing, perfected gift.

Over your lifetime, culture-specific memories have imprinted your mind. In nanoseconds you pull these memories out of storage vaults between your ears, and they will define what you know is the real message.

Rose Rosetree, in her book, The New Power of Face Reading, reminds us the physicality of our bodies has already taught us how to judge the nonverbal messages that bombard our daily schedule.

For instance, if someone in the middle of a heated conversation crosses his arms over his chest, the message could be, “I do not like what I am hearing right now and I am protecting myself.” If you notice in one of your board meetings someone has just finished speaking and then immediately begins to rub behind her ears, she may be saying, “I do not think they liked what I just said.” And, if someone covers his mouth following a statement you have just made, the message may be, “He cannot be serious … we are supposed to believe that.”

This gift of interpretation also applies to how we use space between us and those we serve. Specifically, be careful about hugging someone in a public place who may be uncomfortable with this invasion of personal space. If you are sitting next to someone on the same pew or sofa, leave 12 to 16 inches between you and the other person. This space will normally create a comfort zone between you and the other person.

And, when providing pastoral care with the door closed, always sit in a separate chair apart from the parishioner and slightly turn your chair so the two of you are not seated directly in front of each other, which usually communicates confrontation.

The Final Test for Reading Your Board’s Body Language

You may have excelled at recognizing body language messages in your ministry board meetings and your one-on-one conversations with these important leaders. And, your gifts of accurately interpreting these messages may have been insightful and precise. But, there is no value understanding body-language messaging unless you reflect back to your board what you have just observed and how this knowledge can make the board more effective.

You have three choices.

First, you can ignore the messages you have received. Avoidance is an important ego-defense skill learned throughout ministry that often whispers, “If you do not acknowledge this unpleasant message you have just received, time … and our Lord will take care of this.”

I will never deny the possibility of divine intervention. At the same time, avoidance normally confuses and exacerbates a negative message into an extraordinary problem in the ministry. Silence has the potential to nourish a problem into permanent, pervasive distortion that will continually create havoc in a board’s deliberations.

Second, you can dump gallons of hyper-spiritual verbiage as a response to unpleasant body-language messages. The divine diatribe may sound like this, “If what I am hearing and watching around this table tonight is supposed to be the work of anointed, Spirit-filled leaders, then we need to get on our knees and pray ourselves into becoming God’s people again.”

Allocating some serious knee-time to become God’s people is always a good use of a board’s time. But notice the language and the tone of hyper-spiritual words: someone who perceives himself to be the parent and not the pastor normally speaks these words. The result of this statement is guilt, not renewal.

Finally, if you are leading a board that has been liberally sending negative body language messages, try assertive questioning followed by a positive conclusion.

Your intervention will sound like this, “As I have been observing us tonight, I sense we are presently uncomfortable creating this new staff position. Tell me, am I reading the board accurately?”

Notice this final question allows the board to navigate through a variety of options. More important, you, the spiritual leader, have been actively observing which elided into verbal interpretations and ended up with concluding.

Whatever observations (face-reading, tone of voice, silence, physical distance) you cite, you need to follow up with clear leadership direction. Remember, your board is often screaming messages to you … without moving their lips.