In a past life, I reported to a nontechnical manager who acknowledged her lack of technical savvy. While my manager’s shortage of IT skills was a problem for some of her reports, there was one thing that she did very well—she was a master at nonverbal communication. Here’s how one manager used nonverbal communication to get to the facts and clearly make her point.

Eye contact prevents diarrhea of the mouth
Our department was receiving a lot of flak from both the infrastructure team and the business drivers because we were behind on a development project. While some of the factors were outside of our control (unscheduled server maintenance), the biggest problem was the fact that our production cycle was not the most efficient. Furthermore, the QA department (of which I was the only member) was pushing back almost everything development rammed through—including some well-known legacy code problems.

I went to my manager and began ranting in techno-speak about a past developer who couldn’t document his code and a Web developer more concerned about background colors than page functionality. I stopped ranting when I realized that my manager was looking me directly in the eyes and her posture did not waiver. Without uttering a word, she kept me from delivering rapid-firing excuses. Because she didn’t look at the table or fumble awkwardly with papers or pepper her sentences with “um,” she communicated this message: Just get to the point, Jack.

Nod when you listen and take notes
Her direct, but unspoken, order snapped me out of my rant and I was able to succinctly recount the list of problems with the project. When I discussed the poor code of a particular developer, she acknowledged my point with a nod and a sincere, albeit partial, smile. As I outlined some of the production issues, she took copious notes and resumed eye contact when she was finished writing. She let me talk until I was finished.

When she finally did say something, her voice brimmed with confidence. She instructed me to craft a hot list of priorities that needed to be addressed to get the project back on track.

How stupid questions can lead to smart answers

You can turn a lack of tech knowledge into an advantage in project management. Here’s how to do it successfully without losing the respect of your team.

Leaders don’t have to be technical
My message for managers of technologists is simple: Don’t avert your eyes or otherwise communicate with your body language that you don’t quite “get” the specifics of the techno-diatribe brought to you by your reports. You don’t have to “get” the specifics in order to manage the people who need to resolve technical problems. Let your technical people rant when they need to, then look them in the eye and ask for the facts. After that, you can make the decisions necessary to steer the process toward success.

What’s your view?
Have you used non-verbal communication strategies or been involved with someone who has? What types of nonverbal techniques have you experienced, and did they work? Share your war stories by posting a comment below or by sending us an e-mail.