Whether or not you believe Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s oft-quoted research that 55% of communication happens through nonverbals, 38% through vocal elements, and only 7% through the words we use, most people will concede that nonverbals play a major role in communications. So why is it that so many leaders seem to focus only on words and ignore the other 93%?
For starters, open two-way communication gets harder when people are placed in positions of leadership. Most people who report to you will be good students. Good students give the teacher the answer he or she wants to hear, whether or not they actually believe it’s true. After all, giving the “right” answer is the way you get good grades, right? So most people’s words tend to reinforce what the leader is already thinking . . . thus giving a 7% confirmation that everyone is on the same page regarding the best course of action.
But aren’t words more “concrete” than all subjective, nonverbal stuff? In a word, no. When words and nonverbals are in conflict trust the nonverbals, which are often unconscious and reflect true feelings or intentions. (Anyone who has raised a teenager can vouch for the truth of this concept.) People may say what they think they are supposed to, but for the leader who takes the time to “listen” to the nonverbals, there can be a whole host of information being communicated that isn’t being “said.” Whether it is a lack of eye contact, gestures or physical movement (such as someone tapping their foot, drumming their fingers or crossing their arms), how a person positions themselves in the room, or “the look on their face”, your people can say a lot without saying a word.
What can a leader do to make sure you are hearing the full message? Focus on the complete “conversation” taking place, not just the words being shared — by you or someone else. If you are thinking about what you are going to say next, you can miss subtle nonverbal cues that are communicating loud and clear if only you are attentive enough to notice. If a person’s words and nonverbals are inconsistent, ask for clarification — not in an accusing way, but in a spirit of seeking to understand . . . “Joe, you seem uncomfortable/unconvinced/skeptical . . . do you see the matter differently?” And then give Joe the opportunity to share his perspective.
When you consistently loop back with your people in this way, a) they will start to believe that you really do want to know what they are thinking, b) they will feel seen and valued because you noticed something that they may not have even been aware of conveying, and c) you will gain the value of the full message your people are communicating — through words they share . . . and the other 93%.