Sari de la Motte

An expert explains what you're saying when you're not saying anything at all.

Sari de la Motte, 37, is a guru of the unspoken.

And since 95 percent of all human communication supposedly falls under that category, de la Motte has a lot to work with—from the way we cross our arms to the cadence of our words.

The owner of Nonverbal Solutions, a Northwest Portland consultancy that's been around since 2007, de la Motte advises business managers and teachers on more effective ways of using what she calls "nonverbal communication."

But her approach has applications far beyond the boardroom or the classroom. The goal? To teach people to understand and accommodate others better, even when (in this tough economy) they're firing those people.

Just don't call her a body-language expert.

WW: What in the world is "nonverbal communication"?

Sari de la Motte: It has to do with what you do with your eyes, your body and your voice. We know from research that if there's a mismatch [between what a person says and what he or she does with her eyes, body and voice], the listener will always go with the body language.

But you apparently hate it when people call you a "body-language expert." What's up with that?

They oversimplify. Whether they come out and say this or not, the general expectation out there is that you can look at what someone is doing nonverbally and say, "This is what they think." And that's just not true.

Is Lie to Me, the Fox show about a body-language expert who helps police solve crimes, lying to me?

When you have people wired to machines to check their heart rate and their pulse, and you're looking at second-by-second video fragments of facial expressions, sure you could probably get pretty close and tell if someone is lying. But the average person doesn't have that information available to them.

So how does your work compare with what's on Lie to Me?

It doesn't compare at all.… What they're doing is reading [other people's nonverbal communication]. What I'm talking about is sending.

Is there such a thing as too much eye contact?

In Western culture, we...believe that eye contact equals respect. You look at people when you want to give information. Here's where you get in trouble: Eye contact does equal respect when you're in a relationship with that other person. But there are times when you don't want it to be about the relationship. And if you use eye contact, you drag the relationship into it and you ruin it.

So let's say you have to fire someone. That's pretty common these days. Should you look at the person?

When you have to give negative information, look at something else. What that might mean is this: I would have something in front of me, and I would say [looking at an imaginary sheet of paper], "Due to budgetary problems A, B and C, we have to let you go." Now, the budget is saying, "We need to let you go." It's not, "I'm firing you."

What exactly is the difference? Someone's not going to go home and tell his wife, "A piece of paper fired me today."

It really has to do with how it's perceived at the moment…. The whole point of giving information that's negative with the assistance of a visual is to take the relationship out of the process and separate yourself from the message.

Is nonverbal communication culturally specific?

It does differ. But there is no culture that I am aware of that requires eye contact when giving negative information. So what's nice about that is you really do step over cultural minefields.

Isn't it enough to just be nice to people? Why do we have to communicate differently with different people?

It has nothing to do with being nice. There are people who we call cats and others we call dogs. Cats are highly independent. They don't like direct relationships. You be nice to a cat person and you can kiss that relationship goodbye. Dogs are the opposite. They're highly accommodating. They want to go grab you coffee. You be nice to a dog and the relationship improves.

Really? Wait—are we all just cats or dogs?

No one is all cat or dog. We all have both. You might be a cat at work and a dog at home. We tend to have a resting place. I tend to be a little more cat. But if you're just a cat and you're out in the world, you're going to run over people. And if you're just a dog and you're out in the world, you're going to be run over.

Say you're a manager of an office full of both cats and dogs. How do deal with them?

You treat people as they need to be treated, instead of using the golden rule, which is treat people how you want to be treated. How do you get cat people to play with you? Their No. 1 value is freedom. They don't like direct approaches. So you need to be indirect, dangle things in front of them. We would never do that with someone who is dog-oriented, because that's mean. You don't tease real dogs.

I see from the ring on your finger that you're married. How does being a cat affect your relationship with your husband?

When we're fighting, I might not use eye contact. But that doesn't work with your spouse. You have to look at your spouse when you're having a discussion.

Should a cat not marry a dog?

I don't think there's any "supposed to." But if you're a dog and you're married to a cat who needs space, I think understanding that makes things a lot easier, which is really what nonverbal communication is about—understanding and accommodating someone else.


De la Motte blogs at