Can You See What I’m Really Saying?

The old adage “Your actions speak louder than your words” is as true today as it was when some wise sage proclaimed it. Whether in a family, social, educational or work setting, the unspoken language of facial expressions, posture, gestures and the like send very powerful — and often incongruent – messages.

Throughout our lives we are taught ways to behave in various situations — ways that are considered appropriate for the situation. We learn very early in life to refrain from “talking back” to authority figures. Early in our careers, we learn not to state our own opinions or ask too many questions for fear of repercussions — either immediate or as fall-out later in our careers. Just because we do not verbally respond in those situations does not mean we are not communicating our feelings or reactions. Too often, even we are unaware of the non-verbal message we are sending.

We are encouraged to “go along” with the group or situation and to form consensus and keep things moving forward. We carefully select the words we use in speeches and presentations. Yet the message is still often unclear; we may be sending mixed signals. Unless we carefully align our non-verbal communication with the words we chose to use when conveying the message, we may be defeating our own efforts to communicate clearly.

If we were only to listen to the words of a conversation, we would miss most of the meaning of the message. We leave ourselves open to interpretation from our own perspective. What pictures to you see in your mind when you read the following scenario?

Parent (or Boss): “I want this task completed by noon. Will you get it done by then?”

Child (or Subordinate): “Yeah, I think I can do it by then. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

If the parent/boss hears only the words, rather than listening to the complete message, he misses the non-verbal message. In this scenario, the child/subordinate’s head is shaking left-to-right and back again repeatedly while the individual is saying, “Yeah,…” In North American cultures this non-verbal indicates, “No.” So when the mouth is saying “yes” and the head is saying “no,” the resulting action will probably be “no.”

The real message being sent is “No, I don’t think I can meet your deadline.” Since the message is a subconscious expression of concern, it comes out through a non-verbal form of communication. The individual consciously knows what answer the parent/boss expects to hear; therefore, he says the appropriate thing even though he does not believe it is possible to perform to the expectation. So unless the parent/boss was listening with his ears and eyes, he would not have heard the complete message.

Was the child/subordinate lying about the intent to complete the task? At least not consciously! He knows what the expected answer should be and gave it. However, he was ignoring or otherwise failing to acknowledge, what he was thinking or feeling about really being able to meet the expected deadline. Since the parent/boss failed to read the non-verbal communication, he expects the task to be completed by noon.

Why wasn’t the child/subordinate honest about the concerns?

  • First, the individual may not even be aware of this subconscious processing and reaction.
  • Secondly, it may be that based on previous experience with the parent/boss, the individual has learned expected behavior and is trying to please.
  • It is also possible he is trying to avoid the anticipated reactions or repercussions from the parent/boss.

Therefore, it is easier, and perhaps safer, to give the expected reply, even if it means suppressing your real concerns. A good communicator will use all of his senses to both send and receive messages. So the astute parent/boss would read the non-verbal messages that could include tone of voice, posture, eye contact, facial expression, etc., as well as the head shaking “no.”

At that point, an appropriate response from the parent/boss could be, “I’m not sure I understand whether or not you will have the task completed on time. I hear you saying “yes,” but your body language seems to be saying “no.” What are your concerns?” Now a safe environment for discussion can be established for problem solving.

Let’s look at the impact of non-verbal communication. Research reported in Psychology Today gave the following statistics about how we interpret the meaning of communication:

  • 7% Verbal Cues
  • 38% Vocal Cues
  • 55% Visual Cues

These facts have been substantiated in later studies. The important point here is that only 7% of the meaning of a message comes from the words. So no matter how carefully we choose the words, there is high probability that the message will not get through to the receiver without considering the non-verbal communication factors. Both the sender of a message and the receiver of the message must consciously use, listen for and observe non-verbal messages and check them for congruency with the words being said.

Now you know why your spouse, children, co-worker, etc., do not always understand your message — especially if they are giving most of their attention to something else while you are sending your message! They may not be listening for the entire message. Even the most carefully chosen words cannot guarantee communication of the message.

There are three main factors to consider in non-verbal communication:

1. Vocal Dimensions: These include the various sounds we make, as well as the tone and pitch of our voice. Pacing of words and use of pauses also impact the vocal dimension. We use various “grunts and groans” to indicate interest, agreement, disagreement, puzzlement, etc. Sounds like, “humm,” “ah”, “tsk,” “uh huh,” and the like are know as paralanguage. These sub-vocal sounds can impact the meaning of a message or send a message of its own. Filler words such as “you know” or “like” may indicate uncertainty in the speaker and detract from clear communication.

Tone and pitch can totally change the meaning of words. Higher pitched tones, louder volumes may indicate excitement, intense feelings, or strong emotion. Lower tones may indicate calmness or that one is in control of the situation. High volume may suggest the speaker is losing control, while too soft volume can signal lack of confidence.

Both pacing and inflection give meaning to words and affect how the listener receives the message. A sarcastic tone or a quick, sharp, barbed reply can totally change the meaning of a message. Whether the voice rises or drops at the end of a sentence may question or determine the meaning for the listener.

2. Body Language: An in-depth study of body language could become a life’s work. The factors to be aware of in your daily interactions are: posture, position, head motion, facial expression, eye contact and gestures. These few factors, when carefully observed and compared to the words being said, will give you much insight into the real meaning of the message. Again the thing to look for: Is the body language congruent with the spoken word?

It is important to remember that body language is a cultural issue. What it meant in our culture may be different in other cultures. If you travel or interact with people of other cultures, it is advisable to study non-verbal communication before accidentally offending others or embarrassing yourself!

3. Spatial Relationships: Again this varies by culture, so we will focus on North Americans. In our culture, we have several accepted spatial areas we should respect when communicating with others:

  • Intimate Relationship 0 – 18 inches distance
  • Personal Relationship 18 inches – 4 feet
  • Work Relationship 2 – 3 feet
  • Social Relationship 4 – 12 feet

When people use an inappropriate distance for the relationship, we feel uncomfortable. If someone hovers over us, we no longer concentrate on the task, but rather experience uncomfortable sensations, wishing they would get out of our space. Aggressive people use invasion of space as a power tactic. Timid people leave a great deal of distance between themselves and others. Many kinds of messages can be sent by the use of space.

Notice how we feel when someone we do not know gets too close. Also notice what we do in our vehicles. When someone cuts us off in traffic, we get angry. They have invaded our personal space. We take our personal space and extent it outside of our vehicle as if it were our bodies. And if we observe people inside their vehicles, we see that they seem to think the glass is one way — looking out only! Space is very important to individuals, but needs vary greatly by culture.

With fifty-five per cent of the message being sent non-verbally, it is critical for good communication that we understand jut what non-verbal communication is and the positive and negative impact it has on achieving a shared understanding. When observing non-verbal behavioral signs, remember to take a gestalt approach. Look at the whole situation and person rather than taking a cue from one signal without regard to the whole.

Become a people-watcher. Listen and watch accompanying non-verbal behavior. Look for the variety of facial expressions and body movements that send messages. It is fascinating. Even more fascinating is seeing how many people totally ignore the powerful non-verbal messages that color their conversations. There is so much being said silently or indirectly. Is it any wonder that we suffer from massive communication breakdowns?

Sherry G. Day, M.S., President & Chief Learning Officer of Executive Resources-Human Potential Consultants, L.C. based in Michigan, has worked with thousands of individuals to assist them in discovering the potential within oneself. Transforming individuals and organizations to maximize potential and execute intentions, Sherry works in one-on-one, team and classroom environments to help individuals to maximize their potential and develop their innate interpersonal skills to communicate and lead more effectively. © 2009

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