Recently I had a client come to me for help getting his team on side. In many ways he was a talented leader, full of knowledge, and he wanted the best for his people, but he hadn’t been able to develop a solid relationship with the team.
We discussed it for a while, but he couldn’t find any reason or event which might have caused them to mistrust him, so there was no clear reason for the relationship not to flourish. I suggested he ask for some performance feedback from his team to try to identify the problem. The clear message he was given was that his communication skills were letting him down. His team felt they were receiving mixed messages from him, or he was saying something he didn’t really believe in.
The problem lay in a mismatch between his verbal and non-verbal communication.
Seems like a relatively small problem, doesn’t it? Yet the results were bad, leading to a lack of engagement, a drop in team productivity and a mistrust of the leader.
Non-verbal communication speaks loudly.
Have you ever watched a foreign language movie without translated subtitles? Or watch a TV program without sound? If you have, you’ll know it’s possible to pick up a lot of the message without needing to hear the words.
You look at the facial expression, body posture, gestures, clothing, the way people are positioned to each other and even the eye contact between them. That’s quite enough to keep you engaged in the action and to interpret what’s happening.
If you happen to have sound with your foreign language movie, you can learn a lot about what is being said just be hearing the tone of voice. Loud or quiet, fast-paced or slow, with a laugh or a clearing of the throat – they all tell something about the message.
While the experts can’t agree on a figure, they tell us that between 55% and 90% of our communication comes from non-verbal cues. That’s a huge proportion!
A clash in communication styles.
It is possible to give out two opposing messages at once. Your words say one thing, but your body language says another. When this happens as you talk to your team, they will be confused about which to believe and the end result is usually paralysis – they do nothing so they don’t do the wrong thing. If they need to make a choice, they’ll often go with your non-verbal message whether they realise it or not, because it is clear and because people believe actions before words.
Mixed messages damage trust and ruin relationships. This was what was happening with my client. He had delivered what he thought was an inspiring message about an exciting new system being introduced to ease the workload. Unfortunately, his body expressed the nerves he was feeling about his presentation rather than his excitement at the new system.
Emotional awareness and non-verbal communication.
I’m not going to talk here about making eye contact and smiling or about the correct pose to use. You know all that and if you don’t, we’d better talk!
What I do want to say is the best way to improve your communication skills and keep some consistency between your verbal and non-verbal communications is to work on your emotional awareness.
It’s the voice inside you which directs your non-verbal communication. Your thoughts and emotions show even when you’re not consciously aware of them. If you want to send accurate messages, with non-verbal cues aligned with your words, you need to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, and how they influence you.
If your message is worth listening to, spend some time preparing yourself before you deliver it. Deal with your emotions so you have enough control over them to stop them sending out the wrong cues.