You’ve likely heard the phrase: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

I disagree.

It’s both what you say and how you say it that creates meaning. In the absence of one or the other, meaning is lost. But when you hear statistics like “93 percent of the meaning in your communication is from nonverbal communication and body language” it is often misleading.

(For the record, those studies citing the high percentages of meaning coming from nonverbal communication are typically referencing highly emotional messages or communicative situations—context matters.)

But there are some visual cues that you can be aware of, and manage if you want your audit client interviews to be the most fruitful, open, and forthcoming as possible.

Let’s start with the physical environment.

Many people don’t think of the physical environment as part of communication. But how a room is set up can actually impact how communication flows, what type of information is shared, and how comfortable the parties involved become.

In my previous article I highlight some of the points listed below from a presenter’s standpoint, but here we focus on specifically on the visual cues you should take note of during your audit interviews. From physical gestures to furniture layout, here’s what every internal auditor should keep in mind.

When you’re going to have a client interview, make sure—if possible—it’s either in neutral space or on their home turf. Since you’re trying to gather information to paint a clear picture and give accurate recommendations you want to make sure you’re setting yourself up for the maximum amount of disclosure. When people aren’t in their own space, and are in someone else’s, there’s a natural amount of defense that builds in our physiology. When we build up any type of defense it’s going to take longer to be forthcoming with details.

Image 1

In this picture above, the man is the interviewee and the woman the auditor. This is clearly his home turf. The desk in between does show some power distance but since it’s on his terms, he is more likely to be open to the conversation as he feels more in control. If the situation were reversed, and he was on the opposite side of the table in an auditor’s office the level of disclosure would be likely more closed. From an auditor’s perspective, though, you might feel kept at arm’s length in this environment. Pay attention to the next interview you do and the room setup. See how this feels.

No matter if you’re in neutral territory or the office of the interviewee, if possible, sit next to, not opposite of, your interviewee. I’m not talking sitting creepily close, but I am talking about eradicating the nonverbal barrier of a table between you. If it’s a square or rectangular table, sit on two touching ends—not opposite sides. If it’s a round table, sit to where the interviewee can see most of your body. When our full bodies are visible to our conversation partner, the tendency to be reciprocally open is higher. This is why when speakers hide behind a podium we often either (a) trust them less or (b) feel a greater power distance.

Image 2

Above, you'll find another example of how you can position yourself at a round table. Instead of sitting opposite, sit close enough where your body is open and mainly visible, but not close enough where you’re touching the other person. Open body language is important for trust and disclosure. Indicators of openness include forward lean, visible body, body facing your conversation partner, and relaxed arms.

In the picture above you also see one woman with her arms crossed. Traditional nonverbal communication analysts would say that arms crossed is a closed position, where a person is on the defensive or not open to suggestion. However, the relaxed positioning of the crossed arms on the table, in combination with the slight lean towards the other person in the conversation would dictate the exact opposite.

If someone had their arms crossed and was leaning backwards with a straight face or a frown, it would communicate withholding or withdrawal from the conversation. Be on the lookout for the combination effect. Very few nonverbal behaviors in isolation communicate clearly. But behavior combinations can convey a significant message.

Image 3

Let’s take a look at this final image. This is likely a typical interview scenario, where there’s a table between two people, but yet neither are completely at ease. Hands together and straight, like the man on the left, would indicate pushing of information. Since his mouth is the one slightly open, we can conclude that he is the person pushing information on the other, the point of the hands guiding the information to its intended recipient. The woman in this picture is clasping hands on the table, so they’re visible. If her hands were fully clasped, it could indicate heightened withdrawal or withholding from the conversation or bracing herself for what may come next. As they are, they’re communicating an attentive, but not completely closed state.

Anybody who tells you there’s one, and only one way to interpret any nonverbal behavior is full of it. The most important things that you can be aware of in an audit interview situation are making sure you set the stage—both physical and communicative environments—for a great interview.

Be aware of nonverbal barriers. Don’t place a table between you and your interviewee. You want information. Make it as comfortable as possible for the interviewee to share with you.

Be aware of open body language. If your legs are crossed, your arms are crossed, and you’re not demonstrating any positive facial emotions, you’re communicating that you’re closed to any ideas or information you’re taking in. In the internal audit role, especially when conducting an interview, you should be open to learning as much as possible. You can communicate that with open body language.

Join MISTI and Jill at the SuperStrategies Conference & Expo where the communication expert will be conducting a workshop and hosting a session.