How to Say “YOU’RE AN IDIOT” Without Opening Your Mouth

Your face speaks louder than your words.

Years ago, my boss asked me to work with a director I’ll call Mary. Mary had just assumed responsibility for a new office in a different state, and my boss asked Mary and I to go evaluate the management team. And then he asked me to give Mary some coaching to make sure she was up for the challenge.

Mary had a wealth of operational experience and general know-how on managing a successful operation. On top of that, she possessed a very generous heart. Mary could be counted on to help anyone in need. Mary extended compassion to everyone…

Except the senior manager, Dan, who had been running the office.

While participating in a few of her management meetings with the office team, I saw that no matter what Dan said or did, Mary would make a face like she just smelled dog crap. When others in the room would toss out a suggestion or thought that Mary didn’t agree with, she would directly but kindly explain why the suggestion wouldn’t work. But whenever Dan threw out an idea, Mary would make this face that told everyone present, “I think you’re an idiot.”

Over dinner, Mary and I talked about the various members of management in the office. I asked her for her impressions about everyone from supervisor on up. But I didn’t ask about Dan.

Mary assumed that I was building up to ask about Dan last. But when I changed the subject to talk about something else that had nothing to do with Dan, Mary interrupted.

“Wait. What about Dan? You didn’t ask me what I think about Dan?” While she spoke, her face assumed the now familiar I-smell-dog-crap expression.

I had been waiting for my opening.

“I don’t need to ask you about Dan. I already know what you think. And so does every member of management in the office.” I took a bite of my food and chewed slowly while her face did some gymnastics.

“What…what do you mean?” she asked as her mind raced to get a grasp on what I meant.

The wall next to our dinner booth was lined with mirrors. Instead of looking directly at Mary, I stared at her reflection in the mirror and said, “Take a look. That’s what everyone sees.”

Mary followed my gaze until she saw her own image looking back at her. In fairness, her face now took on more of a look of shock than of a really bad smell, but I had made my point.

After a short pause, Mary recovered. “But Dan IS an idiot. He’s run the office into the ground.” Her voice sounded defensive.

“That might be the case,” I answered. “It might be Dan, or it might be the newness of the entire office staff. But the real issue is how you respond to Dan. Do you know that every time he opened his mouth, you made a face as if whatever he had just said was the stupidest thing you’d ever heard? And now every member of the management team knows that you have no respect for him.”

Mary opened her mouth to reply, and then closed it again. She did this a few more times until she looked like a fish trying to breath.

“You have a very expressive face. And that’s good when you are happy with someone. But it’s not so good if your face is sending broadcast messages to everyone who can see you,” I told her. “If you need to replace Dan, do it. But realize that you’ve made it clear to everyone in that meeting today that you think he’s an idiot.”

That started a great working relationship with Mary. We developed a little code. Whenever I touched my cheek during a meeting with her, it was a signal for her to check her face to see if she was wearing an expression she wanted the world to see…and interpret.

What does the expression on your face tell the world about you? Is your face telling a story you want told?

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