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A landmark murder trial recently ended with a conviction and a sad loss for innocent family members. The trial was so captivating that it even became a Netflix show.

I listened to the prosecuting attorney’s interview, to learn about their strategy in planning the trial and selecting witnesses. During the trial, they watched the courtroom with heightened awareness, even the body language of the jury and the person on the stand.

The attorney revealed that the accused murderer had a “tell.” When he answered questions with lies, he moved his chin forward, his body language gave him away. This unconscious behavior was a reliable indicator of dishonesty, which the prosecution used to their advantage. He tried to convince the jury of his innocence, but his words indicated guilt. The attorneys and jury watched him, but he did not watch them!

Wikipedia defines a “tell” as it relates to gambling, “A change in behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player’s inner state. A player gains an advantage if they observe the tell, particularly if it is unconscious and reliable.”

We all have a “tell,” what is yours?

You may be thinking, I don’t have one! If you want to know what it is, ask your spouse, partner, or best friend what you do that gives them clues? What are the habits, body language, or eye movements you make that indicate or “tell” what you are thinking or experiencing?

Do you cross your legs and swing one when agitated?

Do you tap your fingers when you are anxious or frustrated?

Do you roll your eyes or furrow your brow when you disagree or think someone is saying something that is stupid?

My best friend in college asked why I tilt my head to the left when she is talking to me? I was completely unaware until she pointed it out. As I became attentive and understood my “tell,” it indicated that I was thinking and “in my head.” When cranial gymnastics start, I ask people to “give me a minute” to consider what they’re saying.

Picture this: you ask someone how they’re doing, and they say “fine,” but their face looks like they just sucked a lemon, and their body language screams “get me out of here!” Are they fine? Nope, not even close. It’s easy to misread a situation if you’re only listening to someone’s words.

A “tell” gives voice to non-verbal body language. When you pay attention, you learn a lot about what someone is thinking or feeling.

Take a work scenario, you’re trying to delegate a task or solve a problem, and you ask your colleague, “How’s it going?” They respond with a weak “OK,” avoid eye contact and fidget. They’re agitated, overwhelmed, and probably need a mental health day. If you don’t listen and address the underlying message, it may affect teamwork, productivity, and the perception of you as a leader. So next time, stop, ask, and listen with compassion. This dialogue “tells” you about your employee, and “tells” them you care!

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter F. Drucker