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The Body Language of Disengagement—and How to Deal with It

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Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting, and it’s going well. You can tell because of the positive body language that your colleague has been showing you. And then, something happens—you’re not sure what—and everything changes.

In business communication, engagement and disengagement are the most important signals to monitor in another person’s body language. Engagement behaviors indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement, while disengagement behaviors signal that a person is bored, angry, or defensive.

Here’s how it looks from head to toes.


Squint Signs and More

When someone is disengaged, the amount of eye contact decreases, as we tend to look away from things that distress us and people we don’t like. Similarly, a colleague who is bored or restless may avoid eye contact by gazing past you, defocusing, or glancing around the room. And instead of opening wide, eyes that signal disengagement will narrow slightly. In fact, eye squints can be observed as people read contracts or proposals, and when they occur, it is almost always a sign of having seen something troubling or problematic.

Disagreement also shows up in compressed or pursed lips, clenched jaw muscles, or a head turned slightly away, so eye contact becomes sidelong.

And when you see people turn their shoulders and torsos away from you, you’ve probably lost their interest. In fact, orienting away from someone in this manner almost always conveys detachment or disengagement, regardless of the words spoken. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their torsos. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they will turn away—giving you the “cold shoulder.” And if someone is feeling defensive, you may see an attempt to shield the torso with a purse, briefcase, laptop, and so forth.

If someone is sitting with ankles crossed and legs stretched forward, they are probably feeling positively toward you. But when you see feet pulled away from you or wrapped in a tight ankle lock or pointed at the exit or wrapped around the legs of a chair, you would be wise to suspect withdrawal and disengagement.


To Get Back on Track

When you notice someone exhibiting any of these disengagement signals, there are six things you can do in response:

1. Think about the context in which the disengagement occurred. Did you alter your body language? Did you ask a question or touch on a particular issue—a “hot spot”? Did someone else enter the room or join the conversation?

2. Check your body position. Are you exhibiting any closed or disengaged behaviors that this person may be reacting to or unconsciously mimicking?

3. Change your body posture to one of increased engagement and see if the person will follow suit. Lean forward, smile, and put your hands on the table—palms up.

4. Make them move. For example, if the person’s arms and legs are tightly crossed (a combination that frequently signals disengagement), lean forward and hand something over—a brochure, a report, a cup of coffee.

5. Change your pitch. Consider that the substance of what you are proposing isn’t being well received, and that now may be the time for Plan B.

6. Bring the disengagement behavior to the person’s attention. “It looks as if this may be a bad time for us to talk,” you might say. “Would you prefer to postpone this meeting until tomorrow?”


Carol Kinsey Goman, a keynote speaker and leadership communications coach, is a leadership blogger for Forbes, an expert contributor for the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, and the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead. To learn more: 510/526-1727; CGoman@CKG.com; SilentLanguageOfLeaders.com; and CKG.com.

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