I believe that each and every one of us can confirm that, in different situations, has had the feeling that something just “isn’t right” in a conversation with another person? A feeling that the other person isn’t revealing something, seems nervous or frightened without any apparent reason? That “feeling” is your subconscious that, while you are talking with someone, is picking up on information about their voice, posture, gesticulation. Even though this ability is something everyone develops from an early age, it has been proven that with training and development of skills of non-verbal communication we can enhance our senses for different signs that the body and the voice give away without intent.
The thing we focus on mostly, other than words, are facial expressions. One of the most significant discoveries when it comes to human communication was that facial expressions which we use to signal emotions are universal. For example, if you find yourself on a safari with a group of strangers whom you do not share the same language with, and you suddenly spot a lion coming at you with tremendous speed, those other people will from the look on your face clearly be able to “read” fear. It is considered that this universality has an evolutionary origin and purpose – no matter the differing languages, your facial expressions will clearly let them know that they are in immediate danger, which will trigger the “fight or flight” response. A look on a person’s face which does not match the words that that person is saying, could be the first clue that it is necessary to dig deeper into what they are saying.
Other than the words spoken, it is necessary to focus on how those words are spoken. The tone of the voice, a sudden change in the tempo – speeding up or slowing down, stuttering, non-words such as “uum” – tell us a lot more about the situation. For example, an experienced and confident salesperson will be well aware of their tone of voice, while someone less experienced or someone who doesn’t honestly believe in the product that they are selling can, confronted with difficult questions about that product or service, suddenly change the pitch of their voice. In that moment they don’t have control over their actions, even though they can perfectly prepare a whole speech highlighting the advantages of what they are trying to sell. A co-worker who isn’t assertive enough can agree with words with the decision of a supervisor, but by speaking more slowly, making long pauses or even staying silent, they will reveal their true attitude. It is important to highlight that a person can be silent or speak more slowly by their nature. In these situations it is important to look for changes in someone’s behaviour. If a salesperson is selling their product with a slow, relaxed tone of voice, but confronted with an unexpected question or a question which could highlight the negative side of the product, a higher pitch of the voice or stuttering can give away what needs further exploring. Sometimes these changes can be very visible, and most of us will easily spot them; but very often they can be very subtle, which requires a sharp eye on our side, as well as relying on that internal alarm that goes off in the subconscious.
Given that during communication we are usually focused on the words, the tone of voice and the face, we can easily miss a person’s body language. For example, pay attention to whether the person is turned towards you with their body or to the side. Turning the body away from the interlocutor, at any angle, could be a signal that the person isn’t really, or doesn’t want to be engaged in the conversation. This is often paired with looking away, not maintaining eye contact. If a person is holding their arms crossed against their body, that can be interpreted as „setting up a wall“ on their side, as a way of distancing themself. Research has shown that reflecting the posture and body language of your interlocutor leads to a better connection and likeability. For example, if you are sitting across from your interlocutor, and that person leans their head on their hand, your subtle mimicking of that movement creates, through time, a subconscious connection. Of course, very fast and frequent mimicking can have the opposite effect and look very odd and offensive. Also, leaning forward to the other person slightly, leaves the impression of involvement in the conversation, gives the message that you want to hear what the other person is saying. On the other hand, leaning back into the seat, often paired with crossed arms, sends a signal that the person does not want to be involved in the conversation. Of course, most of our mannerisms are done subconsciously, and aren’t an automatic signal that a person is or is not interested and engaged. That’s why it is important that, during a conversation, we keep track of our own body language and use it as a signal to our interlocutor that we are paying attention and listening closely. Body language is significant when paired with the context of the words that a person is saying (whether they are following the conversation and participating, or just nodding and saying “mhmm”), as well as facial expressions (are they making eye contact or absently looking away).
Another signal of non-verbal communication is the distance we keep from another person while talking. Even though the world pandemics has led to a bigger physical distance among people globally, this still remains an important part of communication. However, when it comes to distance, it is important to keep track of multiple factors. First of all, different people prefer different things. I believe that in our region you know at least one person who, while talking, hits you with the back of their hand and stands extremely close to you; and no matter how hard you tried to put some distance between you, it somehow never happens. You could probably think of another person who always somehow seems to make small steps backwards as soon as someone gets closer. Secondly, a very important factor is the culture you are currently in. Mediterranean cultures prefer closer contact, while moving north in Europe you will encounter a need for a greater physical distance. It is necessary that you are always aware of the cultural background of your interlocutor, so you wouldn’t interpret that difference in a wrong way.
When put together like this, to a person that has not given too much attention to non-verbal communication, it can seem hard or impossible to keep track of all factors at once, especially when we point out that these changes in behaviour are often very subtle. When talking about facial expressions, the speeds of changing a facial expression can go between 1/2 and 1/25 of a second. How can you expect of a person to notice such fast changes? Next to the already mentioned subconscious that does the better part of the job for us, communication skills are something that improves with practice and experience. Practise consists of simply being a thoughtful interlocutor, memorizing these several factors and keeping track of them during a conversation and, most importantly, trusting yourself. It doesn’t mean that you will be right every time (I believe that errors in communication deserve their own article), but you will most definitely make a positive change in your life, which is relevant for both your business and personal life.