Not Facing People Makes Them Comfortable??

I went the other day to an espresso bar (yes, I am a full-on coffee/espresso snob now!) and noticed something that I had to blog on. Being the massive observer of body language and nonverbal communication that I claim to be, I noticed the two people next to me.

they were both seated next to me, and I was standing at a high table drinking my cortado. I noticed two papers on their table, and while watching them I was thinking that these two do not really seem to know each other. I was able to see on the table one of the papers, facing the gentleman, was the woman's resume.

For those thinking, "Wow, I love people-watching but always feel like I will get caught, how does Jeff do it?" Sorry but this is not a tutorial on how to people-watch! Perhaps in a future blog posting I will go over my stealth detective skills and how they are used in people-watching.

So, back to the story. The woman I now determined was there on a job interview and the gentleman was the one conducting the interview. Right away I was thinking how her body language and gestures were very conservative- she was sitting upright, limited hand gestures as well as few facial cues.

The gentleman on the other hand was shocking me. Yes, I still get shocked. What I noticed right away and was simply astounded by was his posture. For mediators, ombudsman and conflict coaches, I often tell people to develop immediacy and rapport, one thing you should ALWAYS do (hey, I rarely use the word 'always') is face them. Especially while another person is talking, if you want to show you care and are interested, face them! Ditto for when you are speaking.

Think about, seriously, close your eyes or just picture to yourself while acting as a mediator, ombudsman or coach and think- do you you face the person? Think now how would you feel if you were the client or party member and the mediator did not face you while he/she spoke and while you listened. Now picture the person turned sideways and the only occasional movement was crossing their legs. Crossing your legs, for men, I say often signifies someone is confident, comfortable enough and relaxed.

Let's go back to the gentleman conducting the interview now. I snapped this photo discretely (they did not notice) on my mobile phone as I was completely shocked at how the entire time I was there, he sat sideways. Occasionally he crossed his legs. HE NEVER FACED HER directly.

Now as if this was not shocking enough a few days later I went through my nonverbal communication books to quote from them for this post about how facing a person (ask yourself where your belly button is facing) and guess what I found? I found the following from a book I often recommend to people who are interested in an introduction to body language.

On page 359 of "The Definitive Book of Body Language" by Allan and Barbara Pease, they state the following:

When you position your body 45 degrees away from the other person, you take the pressure off the interview. This is an excellent position from which to ask delicate pr embarrassing questions, encouraging more open answers to your questions without them feeling as if they are being pressured.
Wow, again shocking. I think shocking at least. My first response to this is just because something is written in a book (or an instructor or trainer tells you) does not means (edit: fixed typo) it is the truth or right. Let me add at this moment I could be completely wrong and Allan and Barbara could be right. All I am saying is I think, based on my own experiences and the research I have read (see below) and been involved in personally is this is totally off.

I really look forward to feedback from everyone and their thoughts on this.


Whether you face someone directly, at an angle, or literally give them the "cold shoulder", your body angle communicates more or less immediacy. People are interpersonnally cold, unavailable, and uninvolved in side-to-side and back-to-back positions... one of the main ways people increase involvement and immediacy is to assume a more direct body orientation (Coker & Burgoon, 1987). Andersen, Peter A. Nonverbal Communication: Forms and Functions.

"The Degree to which someone's legs and shoulders face the direction of someone else indicates the level of liking or the status of that person. The more someone's body orientation is toward you, the better your chances that the other person has a positive attitude about you. Goman, Carol Kinsey, The Nonverbal Advantange, page 35.

The more time doctors spend with their bodies oriented toward patients, the more that patients are satisfied with doctors, and the more medical information that patients understand/retain (Larsen & Smith, 1981). Guerrero, Laura K. and Michael L. Hecht, The Nonverbal Communication Reader.


  1. Maybe the interviewer already knew that he wasn't going to hire her.

    Also, the spacing is important. It appears from your surveillance photo that the distance is very close and if he were facing her directly with feet firmly planted under the table, he would be in her intimate space.

  2. Great, thought provoking post, Jeff. At first, I was inclined to agree with you, but after more thought, I may disagree somewhat. (I do agree completely, that an interviewer should face the applicant at least most of the time.) I think it may be easier for some people to open up if the listener is not facing them directly. As evidence of this, I refer to the fact that most therapists sit to the side of their patients. This issue definitely warrants more thought.

  3. Steve,

    Hey, it was not a surveillance photo! I was not working undercover :)

    I believe intimate zone dynamics change when within the zone are objects- the table in this case. I think, even if spacing is limited under the table, he could have done it more subtly if he wanted to give an impression he was interested.

    What do you think? As a mediator, do you see yourself doing this- say for example- while one party is giving their story? And I am not necessarily disagreeing, I am looking for another perspective. :)


  4. Tom,
    Good point but perhaps ‘apples and oranges’? I am not sure if I would connect the role of a therapist to this situation. How about even connecting you as an Ombuds (or me as a mediator)- do you ever see yourself taking that position on purpose while a visitor is speaking to you?
    Also, back to the therapist situation- the room dynamics are preset that way while in this setting the gentleman changed the dynamic of face-to-face to turn away. I decoded it, regardless of the intention or unintended coding on his part, as negative. Maybe even on purpose as he might have already decided he was not going to hire here and ‘leaked’ that out by not facing her.
    Thanks for sharing- I enjoy the different perspectives and I think it shows how we need more studies done in the conflict resolution field in regards to this... which so happens to be something I am trying to do!

  5. Hi Jeff: Interesting speculation about the impact of body orientation on communication quality and satisfaction of the participants. However, most if not all of the comments, including those from non-mediator settings like job interviews, medicine, and therapy, are opinions based on personal experience. It would be even better if someone (I know you have some plans to do research in the non-verbal area) would collect hard data to shed light on these issues. For example, parties could be randomly assigned to either the 45 degrees or straight on conditions and then compare the two conditions on questionnaires, interviews, or standard coded observation aimed at eliciting responses to perceived connection, intrusion, insult etc. In fact many fields of practice and service, certainly including mediation, suffer from lack of research. Many practitioners are hesitant to evaluate their own preferred means of practice and that often inhibits progress and good service.

    Cheers, Alan

  6. Well, After only 6 years in the conflict management & public engagement field, I find I've become a tone person; not that I disregard body language by any means. To that end, the body language thing, I actually always follow a simple little acronym I learned from my daughter (who learned it in grade 3 so I'm not sure who owns it-sorry).

    S.O.L.E.R. S-squarely face the person; O-open stance/body language; L-lean forward a little; E-eye contact; R-relax

    Seems to me regardless what the reason for the conversation you generally want your dialogue partner to share openly and honestly so creating a connection and rapport is critical as you say Jeff.


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