Companies and organizations have, understandably, rediscovered the merits of face-to-face meetings. The benefits range from the ability to build and enhance important business relationships, to serving as a great forum for providing leadership and direction.

But there is another highly important incremental benefit to meeting in-person: the ability to gauge and interpret the nonverbal cues of attendees.

Nonverbal cues: An added benefit

Since studies have shown that up to 93 percent of communication is nonverbal — and these cues provide more insight into speakers and listeners than the actual words themselves. Nonverbal cues include facial expressions, eye contact, head movements, hand gestures, posture, body language, tone of voice, body movements, nonverbal sounds and eye movement.

Isn't it ideal to see how (and if) the message is being received?

In comparing the benefits of a face-to-face meeting to a conference call, it is obvious to recognize that you can't see facial expressions or body language over the phone. But even with videoconferencing, studies at Pennsylvania State University have shown that it is harder to follow nonverbal cues in two dimensions.

While communication via discussion boards or through electronic correspondence can be valuable, these prevent you from interpreting tone of voice or seeing any visual cues.

Interpreting the cues

If you really want to decipher the signals others are providing to you and that you're sending out consider these nonverbal cues (as they pertain to the U.S.) as outlined in "The Nonverbal Dictionary" by David B. Givens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies:

Body alignment Studies by Albert Mehrabian show "our upper body unwittingly squares up, addresses and 'aims' at those we like, admire and agree with, but angles away from disliked persons and people with whom we disagree." This is even evident in a meeting, where it is often possible to identify the most powerful person seated at a conference table by the greater number of torsos aimed in his/her direction. Additional studies by Mehrabian show leaning forward suggests friendliness or attentiveness, and leaning backward expresses more of a negative pose.

Facial expressions While many facial expressions convey obvious emotions, others can be more subtle. These include:

  • lip purse conveys disagreement
  • flashbulb eyes reflect surprise or excitement
  • narrowed eyelids show threat or disagreement
  • gaze down tends to show submission, deception, guilt or a defeated attitude
  • eye movements to the right or left signal information processing, reflection and thought

Body language Some body language can provide positive cues:

  • a hand to the cheek can convey evaluation and thinking
  • a tilted head tends to show interest; an open palm shows sincerity and openness
  • rubbing hands can convey anticipation
  • stroking the chin shows the person is trying to make a decision.

Whereas negative cues to look out for include:

  • touching or rubbing the nose can show rejection, doubt or lying
  • sitting with legs crossed and foot kicking slightly conveys boredom
  • arms crossed on the chest can represent defensiveness
  • hands behind the neck in the "head clamp" can show dominance or frustration
  • pulling or tugging at the ear may show indecision

Another reason in-person meetings will continue to provide the greatest return — while spreading your message and developing your markets is that you must be seen to be appreciated. You can look to the long-known fact that nonverbal cues provide significant intelligence and insight into how the message you wish to convey is being received, and who among your target audiences is most engaged.