Get to the heart of workplace conflict by reading body language

I remember when toxicity from two gossiping co-workers took a toll at my workplace. The team members' personalities did not groove well, and they weren't shy to let it show. Workplace productivity was disrupted from the constant gossip, and it was clear that things needed to change.

No person or company is immune to workplace conflict. In fact, 65% of employees believe respectful treatment of all employees plays a vital role in their job satisfaction. It's no question that workplace conflict can be a culprit of workplace disrespect and tension, thus leading to performance and productivity issues.

Some signs of conflict are visible, such as a heated argument between team members. Other conflicts are not so easy to spot and are disguised by body language. I’ve spent years in entrepreneurial roles learning that inconsistencies between verbal statements and nonverbal actions are strong indicators of conflict and how to manage these situations through recognizing and using body language.

Before conflict undermines the livelihood of your workplace culture, you, too, can utilize the subtle clues of body language to detect it as early as possible.

Learning the language

Sometimes, we place too much emphasis on choosing our words and forget to focus on how they are conveyed. As much as 55% of what we say is communicated through body language and facial expressions, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian asserts in his book "Silent Messages.”

You’re probably familiar with some body language cues. Clenched fists and pointing fingers are both clear signs. But other actions, including lowered eyebrows, tightness around the mouth and eyes, and shallow breathing, are less obvious. As a manager, though, these signs are crucial to notice when identifying and resolving conflict.

Interpreting the signs

By reading body language, I resolved a productivity conflict with a team member before it turned into a bigger issue. I could tell from the way this team member walked and his facial expressions that something was wrong. It was also clear through performance metrics that his sales work was down.

When we met to discuss why he was struggling, the first thing I noticed was his smile. A genuine smile pushes up your cheeks and creates wrinkles around the eyes. Instead, he exhibited a fake smile, in which the muscles around the mouth do the work, creating a sometimes awkward-looking grin. This could be a sign that he was uncomfortable talking about the situation.

The second sign I noticed was lingering eye contact. Contrary to popular belief, longer periods of eye contact are not always a good thing. In fact, a 2016 study from The Royal Society found that, on average, we are only comfortable making eye contact for 3.3 seconds at a time.

After listening to the team member's story, I cut to the chase. I calmly told him what I had observed in his body language and that I really wanted to hear the truth. That’s when our real conversation started. The employee told me he had issues with his manager. This made him resentful and affected his productivity.

The resolution occurred after a few additional meetings with the employee, the manager, and me — all while using body language to my advantage.

Making the most out of body language

When aiming to defuse conflict, begin by focusing your attention on your team member, nodding your head gently to convey you understand.

In addition, make sure the muscles around your forehead and eyes are smooth and relaxed. This nonverbal sign assures others that there is nothing to worry about. To help with this, go in front of a mirror, make an angry face and notice the tense muscles around your eyebrows and lips. The better you recognize facial tension, the more likely you will be able to relax and create positive body language.

Likewise, breathe slowly, and avoid crossing your arms. Breathing fast is a sign of stress, and your stress can greatly affect those who report to you. In addition, I see junior team members cross their arms a lot in situations, and I take it as my cue to step in and get to the root of the frustration.

Avoid negative signs, such as pointing feet away from you or toward an exit, looking away or to the side, or leaning away from you. These movements indicate a person's disinterest in the conversation or meeting. As a manager, be aware of this body language and make an effort to reel in the attention. One way is to use humor. Say something like "OK, maybe I'm not the best speaker, so please tell me what I can do better to get you interested."

Armed with this knowledge, you can use soothing body language and discussion to resolve conflict and spot future issues down the road.


Originally from Turkey, Zeynep Ilgaz and her husband emigrated to the US with two suitcases, their love for each other and a desire for entrepreneurship. They co-founded Confirm BioSciences and TestCountry in San Diego, and Ilgaz serves as president of both. Confirm BioSciences offers service-oriented testing technologies for drugs of abuse and health.

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader. We also have more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, all free to sign up.