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How to set your nontechnical peers at ease

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I recently started working with an individual from a non-IT department, who was showing all the nonverbal signs of feeling threatened. Remember, nonverbals speak louder than words!

In one meeting recently I was trying to help build trust and rapport with this individual. I was scheduled to meet with her in a room that had 3 rectangle tables shaped into a U. I sat on one of the corners so if she sat at 2 out of the 3 tables she’d be on the ‘same side’. When she walked in the room, she quickly sat in the farthest seat possible from me. It was clear from her distancing herself physically as well as a cluster of other nonverbal cues that I hadn’t reached my goal of trust with her yet.  Right or wrong, do they sometimes feel threatened or self-conscious?

How do you set your nontechnical peers at ease so they’ll be comfortable talking to you? How do you build trust and rapport so they’ll listen to your opinions? How do you not come across as a know-it-all, condescending jerk? There are many verbal and nonverbal cues that will help or hinder these relationships. However, I want to give you 3 specific, nonverbal tips that will help ensure you’re not coming across as a jerk.


Avoid these pitfalls and it’ll help with your relationships with co-workers, as well as any of your interactions with others. It might even save your marriage!

Contempt Expression

John Gottman of the Gottman Institute spent years studying marriages, looking for factors leading to either success or divorce. He found that when talking to a couple, if he saw a particular microexpression (a brief, involuntary expression) in one of their faces, he could predict with about 93% accuracy that they would get a divorce.

The expression is CONTEMPT or SUPERIORITY. This expression is made by one side of the mouth going up, making an asymmetrical smile. We do this when we feel contempt towards someone or something or if we’re feeling superior. It’s the go-to expression of seemingly pompous, arrogant jerks.

Be aware of the expressions you’re making. If you smile (which I’d encourage) then smile with both sides of your mouth. And even if you’re FEELING contempt or superiority, try not to show it.

fake smile

Don’t Tower

Like it or not how we sit or stand in relation to others can communicate dominance or subservience. Do they give your boss a small stool to sit on, that’s below everyone else? Or does he get a big office, big desk, big chair etc.?

Whether you’re sitting or standing try to put yourself at about the same height as those you’re working with, so you’re not coming across as dominant. Remember Nick Burns the computer guy, from Saturday Night Live? Or did I just date myself with that reference? Nick would get a request from someone for help on their computer, and he’d come and tower over the person, throwing out technical jargon that they didn’t understand until he’d finally just shout, “MOVE” and take it over.

While efficient, it’s not a great way to build influence. Are your peers sitting? Sit with them, and adjust the height of your chair. If you’re both standing you can’t change your height. But if you’re taller, you can give them a little extra space in their bubble, so they don’t feel you’re towering over them.

do not tower

Judge Judy or Looking Down Your Nose

This probably dates me too, but if you ever watched Judge Judy, you might have noticed that besides sitting higher than everyone else, she also would lower her head and stare over the top of her glasses.

Looking at someone with your face tilted down sends a message of, ‘you must be an idiot’. But you don’t want to tip your face up towards the sky either. Think of a pompous prince. There’s a good chance you thought of someone who had their face pointing up towards the sky either choosing not to look at lowly peasants, or if he does he’ll look down his nose condescendingly. Not a great look for someone who wants to have rapport with coworkers. Find that neutral balance with your head, not too low and not too high.

looking down looking down
Next Steps

No one wants to feel stupid.  It makes them feel unsafe and thus makes them harder to work with.

  • Avoid expressions of contempt or superiority.
  • Show that you’re on the same level with people, including seat height.
  • Finally, don’t look down your nose at people or stare at them as if they’re an idiot.

Simple things can help ensure you have a great working relationship with those that might feel insecure BEING around someone as uber smart as you.

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About the author
MSSQLTips author Jeff Baird Jeff Baird has worked in IT and Business intelligence for nearly 20 years. He's currently a hiring manager and business intelligence manager over a team of 15 data warehouse engineers. He's also is a

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