Silent Communication Can Be Louder Than Words
Most of us can recognize effective communication, especially when it is in verbal or written form. While we can identify poor word choices or tone in ourselves and others, we often underestimate the silent but powerful messages sent via body language.
If we reference an archaic study by UCLA researcher Mehrabian, we are reminded that people respond mostly to non-verbal communication (55%), verbal communication (tone) (38%) and words (7%).
Of course, that research was pre-digital technology, and we are left wondering what the results would be today now that the smartphone is such a prominent communication tool. What would the numbers reflect now that phones seem smarter than people, possessing apps that are intuitive to personal preferences and programs that offer broader and faster interaction?
Would words or emojis rate as low as 7%?
Could acronyms like TTYL or LOL infer more tone than 38%?
Should thumb typing efficiency count as body language?
I am not sure how the results would change, but I do know that technology has impacted body language and not for the better.
Body Language in the Digital Age
In a recent conference where I presented "Communication Faux Pas That Kill Efficiency," a keen participant asked about body language, and what kinds of things make communication a challenge or worse, a failure.
Before I took it upon myself to be the subject matter expert and answer the question, I decided to defer to the 100 participants attending my presentation. The group devised a fabulous list of body language examples which kill communication. There were lots of shout-outs from folks that included a nice balance of non-verbal problems both with and without technology.
Here are the communication behaviours the workshop participants provided. They nicely fit into five obvious categories. As you read them, think about the ones you are guilty of committing.
1. Eyes That Don't Lie
- no eye contact, eyes downcast, eye rolling, furrowed brows, animated eyes
2. Tell Tale Arms & Hands
- arms folded across the chest, hands on hips, inappropriate or offensive hand gestures
3. Body Lingo
- slumped shoulders, intimidating lean, closed stance, disrespecting others' personal space
4. Distance & Disconnect
- doors closed, silence, unconscious looks, blank stares, lack of discussion (always saying 'yes,' to avoid engagement), being unavailable to others
5. Attention Deficits
- texting during conversations, taking calls while interacting with others, doodling while in meetings or active discussions
It seems obvious which behaviours have the capacity to shut down communication and kill interaction. A common question asked in the session was, "How should people deal with others who are distracted because they focus on technology instead of people?"
Dealing with Bad Body Language
Here are some steps that are useful when tackling bad body language. I have used the frequent inappropriate use of cell phones as an example. These steps should help you turn bad body language around.
1. Call out the Offenders
At the moment the offence occurs, ask the pointed question:
"Do you realize the impact on others when you text while we are having a face-to-face conversation?"
Although this is a closed question and the answer will be either "yes" or "no,” the point is to address the bad body language. This inquiry will challenge the behaviour, instigate a little shock into the moment and educate people on the impact their behaviour is having on communication.
2. Ask for Their Thoughts
After asking the call out question, it is important to request additional information. This is most effective when phrased as an open-ended question:
"Tell me how come the communication on your phone seems more important than the communication we are having right now?"
The goal here is to inquire about what is going on to gain insight into the bad body language, understand beyond the action and get clarification on issues or challenges.
3. Balance Needs
With the problem on the table and the impact clarified, now is the time to find a happy medium. This is best done with a request rather than a question:
"When we meet in the future, I would like you to leave your phone in a drawer to reduce the possibility of distractions. We can also look at shortening our meetings if that is helpful."
This is the best time to set parameters, and lay some ground rules and negotiate, so there is respectful communication in future interactions. The goal is a win-win agreement, so both parties know what will happen the next time.
As you can see, it is not okay to accept or ignore body language which negatively affects communication. Acceptance only leads to frustration, which in turn can escalate into either conflict with inappropriate words and tone or silence. These are bigger communication hurdles to overcome than bad body language.
It takes a good level of confidence to tackle body language errors. It is not easy to be assertive and ask for change. Moreover, since most people try to avoid confrontation and conflict, it can seem simpler to walk away frustrated and try again later. Or worse, expect different results in similar circumstance with the same person.
Tackling Bad Body Language Tips
If assertiveness is needed for people to challenge bad body language, there are a few tips:
- Find the most comfortable way to speak up -- use text or email if that is better than face-to-face
- Clarify the problem, its impact and the requested solution -- know what you want to change and how to ask
- Get confirmation and agreement
Bad body language should not happen. Communication is hard enough that we do not need to find additional ways to cause shutdowns. If you find frustration, silence and conflict are prominent in your workplace, consider those are signs it might be time for a body language correction.
If your managers are not addressing bad body language, or worse, are contributors to ineffective non-verbal communication, don't let the frustration and silence continue. Let us teach your staff how to recognize and change body language that shuts down communication. Contact us at 604-349-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also see Pam's session, Communication Faux Pas that Kill Efficiency, from CSAE National Conference 2017 for more valuable suggestions and tips for dealing with communications concerns in your organization.
Pam Paquet is a performance management specialist. As an organizational therapist, she has great insight into the “people side of business” and is referred to as the “Dr. Phil of the workplace.” Her psychological expertise helps workplaces and people “stop doing what does not work” by creating strategies for change in communication, accountability, and behaviour.
The importance of communication in the workplace touched on by Pam in this article is taken in a different direction by Francie Dalton in her book, Versatility: How to Optimize Interactions When 7 Workplace Behaviors Are at Their Worst. Check out this book to take what Pam talks about here to the next level when you know there is an obstacle to your interactions and you need to do something about it.
This article was prepared by Pam Paquet for CSAE. It is Copyright © 2017 Pam Paquet & Associates www.thepossibilities.ca and is used with permission.