“It wasn’t what she said, it’s the way she said it.” The words we use are only a small part of our communication. Most of the meaning of any message is communicated through the many nonverbal channels available to us. Since we cannot read minds or communicate telepathically (at least I can’t), we must rely on our voice and our bodies. Most researchers agree that 70% or more of the meaning of any message is communicated through nonverbal channels like eye contact, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, etc. Twenty percent or so is transmitted through the tone of voice: pitch, timbre, inflection, rate, pauses, volume, and so forth. That leaves 10% or less of any message that can be attributed to the words.
Most of the time this works fine. The verbal and nonverbal messages are congruent. The nonverbal supports the verbal and makes the message clearer and more compelling. But, if you have ever come home from work and found your (spouse, partner, friend, roommate) quieter than usual. Speaking in clipped sentences. Avoiding eye contact with you. You might ask, “What’s wrong?” Invariably, they will respond with, “Nothing!” If words were the whole story, we would conclude that nothing is wrong. But, we know better. We know something is wrong. We do not know, however, what is wrong. All we know is that the words and the body language are not saying the same thing.
This is the moment at which much communication goes wrong. While the technical content of most messages is carried through the verbal part of the message (the words), information about our feelings, beliefs, affection, power, confidence, self esteem, etc. are left to these subtler nonverbal communication channels. During all communication transactions most of the information is thus open to interpretation. Even though these channels are highly subjective and more sensitive to misunderstanding, we assign them extremely high degrees of credibility. We tend to believe the unspoken before we believe the spoken. We believe that nonverbal communication is harder to manipulate and we know that it is possible to lie with words. We know this because we have told lies ourselves. The evidence is compelling. A good actor can lie in all channels, but we believe that most people are less able to lie nonverbally. So when the spoken and unspoken messages are inconsistent, we tend to believe the unspoken even though the chances of misinterpretation may be very high.
Learning to Read Nonverbal Cues
There are a number of publications that promise to teach you how to “read” people’s nonverbal communication. Sitting with your arms folded means you are unapproachable or unfriendly. Slouching in your chair means you are bored. Eye-rolling means contempt. Maybe. But, there are many possible interpretations of each of these behaviors. Folded arms could just be a habit. The person might be cold (They are sitting under the air conditioning vent in the conference room). The slouching participant may be giving something you said serious thought. The eye-roller may be frustrated or confused (I have a teenage daughter and have seen my share of this). It is important to remember that at this moment, you don’t know what the persons means. Any interpretation you make at this moment is an assumption, a hypothesis. Without further discussion, the risk of getting it wrong is very high. Often, testing your interpretation is not too difficult. With the taciturn spouse, you might say, “You sure are quiet today. If there is something you want to talk about, let me know.” Similar door openers might be used with the “sloucher” and the “eye-roller.” Often, with some patience and some good listening, these conversations are productive. Other apparent contradictions between the verbal and nonverbal can be much more difficult to untangle.
There is a situation in which a person in authority may make contradictory commands (“Do this or I will punish you. If you do this, I will punish you.”). This is similar to what anthropologist Gregory Bateson calls a “double bind.” A parent may say to the child, “Grow up. Learn to accept responsibility, stand on your own two feet.” That message is typically communicated verbally. Nonverbally, the parent may say, “Don’t grow up so fast. You still need me.” This, of course, sets up an impossible situation for the child. They cannot satisfy both commands. I just sent my daughter to college and I fear that I may have done a bit of the same thing. By sending her to live on her own I say, “I trust you. You are mature enough to handle this change.” But, yesterday I called her to remind her that classes start on Wednesday, subtly saying, “You must still be dependent on me.” We all do this sort of thing once in a while. In an otherwise healthy relationship, some of this can be tolerated. My daughter will say, “Dad, knock it off. I know what I’m doing.” But if the relationship is not so healthy and this sort of communication is frequent, it creates a lot of problems.
We see this kind of double bind at work. A supervisor announces a new corporate program with all kinds of upbeat phrases and optimistic predictions. But, she sounds like she is reading a page out of the phone book, she doesn’t answer questions, she won’t make eye contact with anyone. When team members ask for clarification, she shrugs her shoulders and suggests that they talk to HR. Or, a senior manager tells everyone, “I have an open door policy. Anytime you have a problem, tell me about it. I want to know. I am especially interested in your feedback about me. If I am doing anything that gets in the way, tell me.” At the same time, her nonverbal behavior may scream, “Don’t you dare come to me with you petty problems. If you do, I will make you miserable and don’t think I can’t.” So when the team member actually goes to her with a problem, she might do one or more of the following: heavy sighing, doesn’t make eye contact, continues to type on her computer or continues to work on something else, glances at her watch, is busy texting on her cell phone and the like, while the team member tries to talk with her.
This sort of communication clearly puts the team member in a no-win situation. The consequences for the leader are considerable. Again, this sort of thing happens to all of us once in a while. But, if this becomes a pattern, the leader will become isolated and eventually start to make serious mistakes. Under these conditions, the leader will not have the information she needs to make informed decisions. People will not be honest about potential problems.
Leadership Training Breaks Down Communication Barriers
If the relationships among team members and leaders are relatively healthy and they have the necessary communication skills, these things can be discussed and the negative effects minimized. But, there are a number of barriers to having these sorts of conversations in many organizations.
- The organization is power dependent. The culture of the organization is overly dependent on the use of power to get things done. Anyone who challenges the status quo is quickly chastised and put back into line. It is a given that you do what your supervisor says without protest.
- The leaders have poor communication skills. Even though the leaders may accept that good feedback is important and are willing to hear criticism, they don’t know how to encourage it. They don’t have the ability or the vocabulary to discuss these kinds of problems.
- The culture minimizes the importance of building relationships. Discussion of anything concerning relationships, emotions, etc. is discouraged or mocked. The tone of all communication is that anything that is not overtly and exclusively related to meeting today’s objectives is prohibited. “Leave that stuff at home.”
- There is a lot of fear in the organization. The company has financial problems. They have gone through a series of layoffs. Leaders have abused their power. It is hard to attend to these more abstract ideas while you are scared.
Effective leadership training can help address all of these issues. The emphasis needs to be on the practicality of clearer communication and on developing the needed skills. Leadership training that does not show participants how to better meet their organizational objectives will be rejected. It is important not to send the message that this training is about making people feel better. Yes, people often do feel better in an organization where communication is clearer, but that is not the primary objective. That should be made clear at the outset.
The leadership training should also provide help for participants who want to do a better job of communicating, especially overcoming the effects of unintentional double binds. To fix these dilemmas, participants need to learn how to change the ratio of nonverbal to verbal communication. Certainly, they should work on their nonverbal communication so that they send fewer ambiguous or contradictory messages. Really encouraging straightforward feedback is a critical part of that process and one where the leadership training can play an important role. But also, participants should learn that sometimes the part of the message that has been left exclusively to the nonverbal channels can be put into words. By revealing through words some of the emotional content of a message, you reduce the likelihood of error in interpretation.
For instance, if a team member has been coming to you for approval on a lot of decisions that you believe he could handle on his own, you might say, “Stop bringing all of these little things to me. I don’t have time.” That statement, of course, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The team member may feel you don’t value his contributions or that he is in trouble, etc. When, in fact you may think he is a very good performer and ready to make more decisions on his own. By saying something more like, “You’ve brought several ideas to me for approval this week. That concerns me because I am confident that you can make these decisions on your own. I want you to be less dependent on me to make decisions for you.” Such a statement gives the team member a lot more information about what you expect and the reasons for the expectation. Leadership training that teaches “I-language” and “I-messages” will help participants develop tools to deal with the more subjective parts of the communication process with more confidence.
Leaders can achieve greater clarity on the listening side of the equation as well. When a team member comes to you upset about a change in policy or a decision that you made, rather than telling her, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right.” Or, giving premature advice, or making a joke of it, “Yeah, that took a genius to come up with that policy.” Instead, you might listen first, then verify your understanding. “Wow. That new policy must be really bugging you. Tell me about it.” This response gives the team member a chance to say, “yes” or “no” and make a correction if your interpretation is not correct. It also opens the door for further dialogue about why the policy is upsetting and how the problem might be solved. This is called active listening and when learned well can be a powerful tool for reducing error in the communication process. The “fact” that the team member is upset is important. Ignoring the emotional side of the equation is dangerous. The problem can’t be fixed without all the facts.
Every leadership training workshop that I have attended tells participants that communication is important. “You should do more of it and you should do it better.” But, those that really show participants how to communicate more effectively are rare. Leadership training like Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training is a good example of one that does a good job of this. Additionally, the organization should set the stage for such leadership training by having clear organizational objectives for the behavior of their leaders, they should have a follow-up process in which the participants get the coaching they need to use the skills on a day-to-day basis. Even with the best of intentions, it can still be hard to put the learning into practice when there are many demands on the leaders time and energy. But, nonetheless, excellent leadership training is a crucial component of making the change.