ATD Blog

6 Ways to Deal With the Body Language of Disengagement

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

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 disengagement looks from head to toe:

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 almost always is 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 torso 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 torso. 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, or laptop, for example).


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

When you notice your co-worker 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 your counterpart may be mimicking or reacting to?
  3. Change your body posture into one of increased engagement, and see if the other person will follow suit. Lean forward slightly, smile, and put your hands on the table—palms up.
  4. Make the other person move. For example, if the person’s arms and legs are tightly crossed (a combination that frequently signals disengagement), lean forward and hand her something—a brochure, a report, or a cup of coffee, for example.
  5. Change your “pitch.” Realize that what you are proposing isn’t being well received, and now may be the time for “Plan B.”
  6. Bring the disengagement behavior to the individual’s attention: For example, say: “It looks as if this may be a bad time for us to talk. Would you prefer to postpone this meeting until tomorrow?”

This article was originally posted on For more on body language in the workplace, check out Carol’s previous blog article in this series.

About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She’s the author of 12 books including “THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead” and (her latest) “THE TRUTH ABOUT LIES IN THE WORKPLACE: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them.” Carol can reached by email: C[email protected], phone: or through her website: 

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