In their public debut, new Mormon church President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors spoke about women (they’re loved), LGBT members (they’re welcome) and millennials (they’re strong).
But, beyond the thousands of words they uttered, their body language — posture, gestures, touches, facial expressions — said even more.
The 93-year-old Nelson appeared open and inviting. His first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, 85, was assertive and supportive. Second counselor Henry B. Eyring, 84, seemed more removed, at first, and periodically uncomfortable.
So say body-language experts who reviewed video of last week’s 47-minute news conference given by the LDS Church’s new governing First Presidency. They noticed the give-and-take, the unity, the chemistry — and occasional lack of it — of this dynamic Mormon triumvirate.
"First, in terms of communication and charisma, I believe that Nelson is an excellent representative, as he seems welcoming and inviting and speaks with conviction … directly to the audience, not at them,” said Lillian Glass, an internationally renowned nonverbal communication expert and author. “[Nelson] also has a very strong leadership quality and seems to be open-minded in his answers.”
Oaks, next in the line of succession to lead The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a longtime apostolic colleague of Nelson, was supportive, she said. “His body language shows this with his smiles and [throughout] his turning directly toward Nelson and hanging on to his every word.”
Until, that is, a reporter asked about any future church policies toward LGBT Mormons.
“Nelson handled that [question] beautifully as he said there was a place for everyone,” Glass said. “[But] I think Dallin Oaks’ comment was a bit diverting as he stressed the commandments. … It was not as welcoming as Nelson’s comments.”
During that exchange, Oaks leans forward and closer to Nelson, a former heart surgeon. He first praises the loving response of the new church president, she said, then amends it to point out the faith’s “responsibility to teach love and the commandments.”
Glass noted that Nelson, briefly seen bowing his head, “attempted to save face by adding the weighing element, [saying], ‘We have a love and law balance here,’ while moving his hands up and down [scalelike], as to be diplomatic in the situation on the world stage.”
Bill Acheson, an expert in nonverbal communication at the University of Pittsburgh, took note that “when asked how they plan to approach LGBT issues, they vaguely speak of God’s love for all his children.”
Later, on the social and economic crisis gripping Mexico, Acheson said, Nelson “refers to their special love for the people of Mexico.”
Such answers became part of a pattern that continued throughout the news conference, Acheson said. Nelson, Oaks and Eyring all answered any tough questions that pertained to “tangibles” by referring to “intangibles.”
“This is a common response pattern among politicians,” Acheson said. “It’s called deflection.”
On the LGBT issue, Glass said, Eyring appeared “very uncomfortable with the whole topic [and] his body language said it all.”
“He looked down … and seemed to disconnect from the topic. He also seemed to have a masklike facial expression throughout his being seated at the table,” she added. “He leaned away from Nelson, whereas Oaks leaned toward Nelson on a continuous basis.”
Eyring served as first counselor to the late Thomas S. Monson, a position Nelson gave to Oaks, even while retaining Eyring in the First Presidency.
The experts agreed that Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, projected himself into discussions, eager to add to or clarify statements made by Nelson and Eyring.
At one point, Oaks “leans in toward [the new LDS president], thereby increasing his influence by encroaching on Nelson’s ‘space bubble’ of territory,” observed psychologist Carrie Keating, a nonverbal communication expert at Colgate University.
“[But] he smiles slightly as he does this, making the postural shift less threatening [and his] smiles signal happiness sometimes, but signal appeasement more often.”
During a question from a Mexican journalist about the church’s response to natural disasters and international unrest, Glass recounted, “Nelson tries to chime in, and Oaks still took the floor, instead of relinquishing it.”
Here, Eyring also weighed in, noting his father had been born a Mexican citizen. At that moment, Eyring and Oaks engaged in a back-and-forth banter, citing increasing personal connections to disaster-plagued regions.
All the while, Nelson “is straightening himself in his seat,” Glass said, “[and] he looks very uncomfortable with their seeming to take over the conversation. They really needed to involve him.”
Nelson, whose body language earlier displayed openness and strong leadership, seemed to falter when The Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack asked a question about the roles of women, minorities and international members in church decision-making.
Initially, the new LDS prophet talked about how well he knew the reporter and how he had “a special place in his heart” for her and her family.
Glass found such personal comments, while positive, to be “rather condescending, from a lay person’s standpoint.”
“Then he [next] asked what the question was,” Glass said. “That shows he was uncomfortable with the question and really didn’t have a [ready] answer.”
David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., also was interested in how the leaders responded to the question about the role of women in Mormonism, which has an all-male priesthood.
The trio, in effect, replied by “laughing the question off and verbally deflecting attention from the real issue at hand,” said Givens, an anthropologist specializing in body language.
The leaders remained friendly verbally, he allowed, but their physical reactions showed them committed to remaining “completely in control, without answering [the] question at all.”
“What about women?” The Tribune’s reporter pressed.
“We love ’em,” Nelson quipped.
He and Eyring, the latter choking up with emotion, turned to praising the women in their lives — spouses and daughters.
“They are talking about women’s roles in their family,” Glass said, “but still don’t address women in leadership positions in the church.”
Generally, though, the experts agreed the body language matched the new LDS leaders’ words about being united.
“[I did not see] any division between the parties that would be problematic,” Acheson said. “I see stylistic differences, but no real substantive divisions.”
Acheson noticed the “strong sense of stewardship among the three speakers; they regularly turn toward each other in mutual support, more than [in] censorship.”
The three reinforced the “image of a team through touch,” often initiated by Nelson, Keating said.
Such interactions can reflect “team bonding,” she added, noting that Nelson is “gently reminding his team that he is the captain.”
As the news conference continued, they all engaged in the kind of “shared laughter [that] establishes social bonds.”
“Humor,” Keating said, “is powerful.”