Just about every person you’re likely to meet exhibits some idiosyncrasies, or quirks. These may be noticeable during normal day-to-day interaction or could only surface under times of stress or discomfort. I’m particularly interested in the latter because it can shed light onto someone’s receptiveness and the true nature of their responses during discussions and meetings.
Idiosyncrasies could be placed under the greater topic of body language, on which there are already plenty of tomes. In this post I will only discuss idiosyncrasies that I’ve personally noticed while dealing with people during large boardroom meetings, conferences, one-to-one private sessions as well as virtual meetings. In these instances, the idiosyncrasies tend to fall into this broad category: a tendency, type of behaviour, mannerism, etc., of a specific person; a quirk.
Let’s start with an example from my own not too distant past where I attended a dinner meeting and found myself surrounded by politicians representing various ministries of an African government. For the most part, politicians are probably the hardest bunch to people to decode because they spend much of their careers in the spotlight and are quite adept at dealing with their own body language.
Nevertheless, during the dinner I asked a question that was met with resistance. “What other people or companies have you invited to talk to you about this particular technology?” The answers didn’t yield the anticipated depth and I felt as though my hosts were dismissive — something I hadn’t expected given the public nature of my project. I rattled off a couple follow up questions so as to understand the source of friction. “Have you had input from any hardware or software vendors?” Diplomacy was always on the tip of my tongue and I didn’t want to be the cause of a heated debate that risked shutting down any candid discussions before even the drinks had arrived.
In addition to the question I had asked, I did have another agenda. I needed to pinpoint the power hierarchy amongst the individuals but I didn’t want to reveal too much of my own hand. Sitting opposite me was a very charismatic, older gentleman wearing a three piece suit, well-polished shoes, hair with silver highlights and a sparkling, white smile that detracted all attention from his bulbous midriff. Let’s call him Spike for the sake of the discussion.
Various people tried to answer my questions but all seemed to fall back onto Spike the moment the questioning touched upon sensitive areas that required some truthfulness. Every one of his colleagues had passed the buck. I’d been in this situation before so I wasn’t intimidated by their dismissive tactics. My eyes opened wide in preparation for what might well be a rehearsed speech, but instead, and rather abruptly, Spike reached back and scratched his shoulder blade at the very moment he started to answer. “No, you’re the first one we’ve contacted and we’re looking forward to your valuable input.”
The scratch was no coincidence and definitely the first time he’d done it all night. Bearing in mind that we were indoors and there weren’t any mosquitoes that time of the year, there was a good chance the scratch was announcing something else completely. No, it wasn’t a typical scratch, it was an idiosyncrasy that alerted me to the fact that either: (1) Spike is uncomfortable talking about the subject, (2) is uncomfortable with the candid nature of the conversation in front of his peers or (3) he’s about to lie. This is not an exhaustive list of possibilities but likely to cover the majority of what you’re going to experience.
Anyone conscious of Spike’s body language would have probably picked up on the blunder that revealed more than he cared to say. Was he lying or was he simply uncomfortable with the situation? With enough attention to detail, practice and familiarity with the people in the room, I was able to pinpoint that what came out of his mouth was a straight out fabrication. A fabrication that none of his peers felt comfortable committing to — probably because the media had already mentioned the government’s involvement with another vendor some weeks back. If you’re going to lie, at least do it properly.
What’s more interesting is that although Spike had a position and rank similar to his peers within the government, the fact that the conversation stopped with him on more than one occasion revealed that he was the alpha in the group. From now on I would focus most of my strategic discussions and energy on him because he carried far more influence than was revealed by his position alone.
So, what should you look for during such discussions? Well, I’ve found the following to be common idiosyncrasies during questioning and uncomfortable situations:
It’s important to remember that these types of idiosyncrasies don’t persist during normal day-to-day activities. If they do persist throughout the day, chances are that they are merely part of someone’s normal makeup rather than a tell. True value can only be gained by studying body language and idiosyncrasies at every opportunity — during and outside of discussion or meetings. Some cultural or regional differences may also cloud the accuracy, however, with time and practice these too will become clearer.
Many people are true masters of the spoken word and are able to mesmerize an audience with magician-like skill. Focusing on the verbal content alone might not necessarily paint the full picture of what’s happening behind the scenes, particularly when discussing sensitive topics. Being alert to idiosyncrasies during delivery can help you shape the course of the conversation and give insight into previously unexplored territory.
If you like a bit of mystery and enjoy a good detective novel, chances are you’re already tuned to the same frequency and will probably benefit by keeping an eye out for the above idiosyncrasies.
1. a tendency, type of behaviour, mannerism, etc., of a specific person; quirk
2. the composite physical or psychological make-up of a specific person
3. (Medicine / Pathology) an abnormal reaction of an individual to specific foods, drugs, or other agents
[from Greek idiosunkrasia, from idio- + sunkrasis mixture, temperament, from sun- syn- + kerannunai to mingle]. Collins English Dictionary — Complete and Unabridged, © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003 ^
Tony Morris would be proud of you Shem!