Don’t Miss “The Tell”

Recognizing and reading these signs can be a powerful communication advantage

Me displaying my tell. Image via my Mom.

Sticking my tongue out.

It’s a dead giveaway that I’m concentrating and working hard to make something happen.

This has been my “tell” since I was a little girl, as evidenced by this photo from my preschool days. In it, I’ve (literally) rolled up my sleeves and am working on a very important project, likely some form of art. (Never mind my Austin Powers-esque garb, it was the ’70s, and I was busy creating.)

Tells are funny things; they telegraph a range of emotions, often without us knowing they’re doing so.

Sometimes, they’re obvious: a child bouncing in his seat in joyful anticipation of his birthday cake. Other times, tells are less pronounced but ever present, particularly in the workplace.

The ability to recognize and read these signs can be a powerful communication advantage. So how can you do this?

Be Observant

In the television series Lie To Me, experts at reading “micro expressions” (rapid movements of facial muscles tied to underlying emotions) were able to detect deception, anger, disgust, sadness, happiness, fear, and surprise.

Even without these micro expression experts by your side, you can learn to read body language. For instance, is someone backing away from you as you speak to him? He might be feeling threatened. Do your customers have their arms crossed as you’re pitching a new concept to them? They’re not open to it.

Signs that things are going your way? Your client is maintaining eye contact, leaning slightly toward you. And the best possible scenario? Your intended audience is mirroring your body language. This is a nonverbal cue that they are truly connecting and in agreement with what you’re saying.


Not all tells are non-verbal.

Have you ever had a conversation with a boss where she said something, but there was something about the way she said it that seemed off? Was her voice was higher (or lower) than usual? Was her cadence faster? How about her word choice — was it slow and deliberate where she usually speaks off the cuff? The inconsistencies from her regular speech pattern could be signaling that there’s more to what she’s saying than meets the eye (or ear).

Sometimes you’ll even have a combination of verbal and non-verbal tells, where what someone is saying (“Of course I believe in this product!”) doesn’t jive with their body language (head shaking back in forth as if saying “no”). In these instances, the key is to watch for conflicting cues.

Read Between The Lines

The tone in email can be difficult to read, but doing so it can be a clue that something’s amiss — or great.

Say you and your client have a good rapport, and that translates to a relaxed, conversational tone in your email exchanges. Then you start to notice that their word choice has become more formal, their emails more structured and less frequent. What are they not saying? This could be a signal that your project has gone off the rails and perhaps your contract is in jeopardy.

Conversely, a colleague may email you about an opportunity for “someone you might know.” In this instance, cryptic language is used to preserve confidentiality and pique your interest to spark an offline discussion.

In both examples, it’s better to switch communication mediums and have a live conversation to get a handle on what’s actually happening.

Pay Attention and Trust Your Gut

My biggest communication takeaway is to pay attention: to your clients, to your bosses, and to your colleagues. When you pay attention, you’re able to establish a baseline of their verbal and nonverbal behaviors. And when they deviate from that norm, you’ll be tipped off when something isn’t quite what it seems — and, more importantly, have the time to investigate and rectify the situation.

Finally, don’t underestimate your gut instinct. If something seems off, there’s a good chance that it is.

© Amy Blaschka, 2017

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

— — —

Amy is the president of rbp consulting, a consultancy specializing in helping transform people and organizations in transition. When she’s not involved in some sort of makeover, you’ll find her…unhappy. She enjoys being a badass writer, playing co-ed volleyball, and pretending she has her own HGTV show. She still sticks her tongue out when concentrating, a good sign she’s in her zone. Contact Amy at

Originally published at

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