Be a Claim Whisperer – Pick Up on Nonverbal Cues

March 16, 2009

In real estate, the three key factors are location, location and location.

In claim negotiation, the three crucial elements are communication, communication and communication.

Even in an increasingly technological age, claim representatives conduct much of their work and communication in person. We meet with clients, spar with agents and brokers over reserves, take statements from policyholders and claimants, call on witnesses, attend mediations, and pop into the Manager’s office to extract settlement authority. In a sense, all claims-related communication is negotiation.

Even in the introductory chit-chat preceding serious dollar discussions, adjusters lay the groundwork for “selling” their evaluation of claims. Often, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication, including nonverbal communication and positioning. Nonverbal communication includes all forms of communication other than words.

Let’s look at three areas of nonverbal communication in claim negotiations. Effective nonverbal communication is critical to persuasion and to success in claim negotiation. Claimants, attorneys, witnesses, clients and policyholders rely significantly on visual cues in assessing adjuster credibility. Nonverbal behavior is key since in-person oral communications are more persuasive, though less remembered, than written communications.

Claim representatives use both verbal and nonverbal cues. Many adjusters may not consider how their own nonverbal cues boost or crater their negotiating effectiveness. In addition, even when claim representatives conduct business in-person, many ignore nonverbal cues from others. Adjusters may miss nonverbal cues because they are looking away or are too preoccupied with what is supposed to happen next in handling a claim file.

Caveat: not every physical movement is an important nonverbal cue. While you should observe the texture of nonverbal cues, don’t read too much into them. Not every tic or ear-pull symbolizes a deeper meaning. Even Sigmund Freud said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” A claimant giving a signed statement or interview may exhibit rapid eye-blinking because of a speck of dust or a new contact lens. The adjuster should not automatically misconstrue these gestures as proof of evasiveness.

On the other hand, a claimant attorney whose eyes light up when hearing a settlement idea may telegraph a vital clue about the reaction to that offer.

Adjusters who observe others closely can view nonverbal signs that convey explicit messages. One problem: extensive note-taking blocks an adjuster’s ability to pick up on nonverbal cues because it requires a claim representative to look away. While notes are helpful, excessive note-taking causes the claim representative to miss important nonverbal cues from the claimant, policyholder or attorney.

Anxiety about what will happen next also causes adjusters to miss nonverbal cues that might otherwise help them in negotiations.

Adjusters often think ahead of the message and dwell on their own comments, actions and job tasks. Thus, they fail to concentrate sufficiently on the interaction with the other person and, consequently, may miss nonverbal or verbal cues. This month, we will examine three types of nonverbal cues: handshakes, punctuality and eye contact.

Shake It!

During the recent Presidential campaign, much was made of Barack Obama’s tendency to fist-bump. In American business, the handshake is one of the few surviving business rituals. A firm handshake conveys strength and confidence, while a limp and halfhearted grip communicates weakness. Claim representatives should make sure that their handshakes project the confidence and self-assurance needed to competently discharge their duties of investigating, evaluating and negotiating claims. Strive for a happy medium between the bone-crusher and the “dead fish” handshake. The handshake should convey neither an overly-passive nor aggressive approach. (Tip: when meeting a business constituent, table the fist-bump.)


In laying the groundwork for effective negotiations, the adjuster should strive to always be on time and to have split-second punctuality. This communicates reliability, credibility and trust-worthiness. Thus, claim representatives should arrive at appointments on time and promptly respond to requests. An insured, claimant or attorney may judge claim representatives’ credibility by the way they handle small commitments and responsibilities. Lateness sows doubts which whisper, “If she can’t get the small things right, can she get the big things right?” This may not be fair, but it is how many people think. Don’t let these factors cloud your negotiating effectiveness!

Caveat: don’t be so hung up on punctuality that you let the lack of it on the part of others rattle you. Some insureds or claimants may be late or stand you up. Claimant attorneys may leave you cooling your heels for extended periods. This may be unintentional, or all part of the claims negotiating “game.” If you are obsessed with others’ punctuality, you may be so rattled by others’ tardiness that you don’t concentrate effectively on the negotiations. Strive always to be punctual, but realize that others in the claim negotiating “dance” may not sway to your rhythms. Let it go and don’t dwell on it.

The Eyes Have It

Adjusters should maintain direct eye contact to develop rapport with claimants, policyholders, witnesses and attorneys. People often distrust those with “shifty eyes.” Without getting into a staring match, claim representatives should discipline themselves to maintain eye contact. It is not always enough to be sincere and credible; one must also be perceived by others as being so. Direct eye contact is a means to this end.

Looking away while listening or speaking can stem from habit or from discomfort caused by watching others too closely. Looking away may cause adjusters to miss nonverbal cues. Adjusters avoiding eye contact not only lose a chance to observe others but also convey a negative message. Looking away can convey weakness, boredom, uncertainty, guilt or deception. None of these are positive responses which “grease the skids” for subsequent successful negotiating. In contrast, the claim representative who keeps eye contact will be perceived as open, honest, confident and interested in the other person’s point of view.

My 125-pound Rottweiler — “Rambo” — cannot talk, but he is a keen student of human non-verbal cues. Whenever I reach toward his leash or unscrew the lid of his kibble box, he perks up. He wears no wristwatch, but has an uncanny ability to know what time it is. He studies the people around him and senses what is coming just from observing. Yogi Berra might have had Rambo in mind when he once said, “You can learn a lot just by watching.”

Rambo can’t adjust a claim (though there were some times I’ve wished I could have brought him to a tough mediation.) His attentiveness to nonverbal cues and human routines contains a lesson for adjusters looking to elevate their negotiating “game.”

Get good enough at this, and maybe your office peers will dub you, “The Claim Whisperer”!

Kevin Quinley CPCU, ARM, AIC is a Washington D.C.-area claims trainer, consultant and expert. He has written more than 600 articles and 10 books on claims, risk and litigation management. E-mail: Web site:

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