Communication Beyond Words
It’s not what you say, it’s what you communicate.
The words we use make up as little as 5% of what we communicate. The nonverbal communication is seen by most people as “more true” than the words. When you say even the simplest word or statement, the meaning can change depending on the tone of voice you use. You may sound in a hurry, relaxed, happy or sad, using the very same words. Paralanguage isn’t concerned with what is said, but instead how something is said. This is attributed to the variations of pitch, intonation, tempo, articulation and resonance of the voice. Communication goes far beyond words. Some of the influences are shown in the graphic below.
We Americans stress words so much that we miss much of the meaning delivered in communication. Our lack of awareness of communication beyond words can lead us to change our behavior without being aware of why.The mere presence of other people has powerful effects, else solitary confinement would not be a punishment. Have you ever been talking to someone who is standing too close and every time you back up they take a step closer? Proxemics research studies the influence of relative physical location of people on interaction and communication. In North America, we have an intimate space of 0-18 inches, a personal space of 18-48 inches, a social-consultive space of 48-144 inches, and a public space of 144 inches to the limits of visibility. The personal space is usually used for communication between family and friends. If a stranger or acquaintance comes closer than this range, they are perceived as invading one’s personal space. This varies according to culture. North Americans have a larger personal zone than South Americans, for instance.
He speaketh not;
and yet there lies
A conversation in his eyes.
Eye contact mediates the effect of personal space. When personal zones are violated, as in elevators, avoiding eye contact reduces the stress of the encounter. Eye contact has far broader effects. We look into each other’s eyes for signals of what is going on inside. In our culture, eye contact signifies trust, confidence, and believability. But eye contact is meaningful in every culture. In other cultures, the absence of direct contact signifies deference to those more powerful.
Tone of voice, posture (submissive or dominant), a touch on the shoulder, getting up and standing next to a speaker, and many other actions can be used to defuse power and dominance activities in groups. Those who seek to dominate groups limit progress of the group. The group can only go as far as permitted by the dominant person’s integrative skills. Mastering nonverbal behavior enables the facilitator to help integrative leaders emerge in the group.
Gestures carry all sorts of meaning if you know how to interpret them. For example, think about shrugging your shoulders. Very young children know and use this gesture to communicate. The shrug is just one of thousands of gestures. For example, downward glances are associated with modesty; wide eyes may be associated with frankness, wonder, or terror; raised upper eyelids along with the contraction of the forehead may translate to a feeling of displeasure; and eyes rolled upwards is normally associated with fatigue or that someone else’s behaviour is a bit weird.
If you didn’t know nonverbal behavior, what meaning would you get from the following statement?
“I don’t think our convention ought to be wagging our fingers at anybody.”
George W. Bush June 11, 2000Those of us who are immersed in words/science/academia often pay less and less attention to non verbal cues to meaning. Facilitators needs to be alert to all common gestures to insure they know what their group members mean.
Good facilitators are extremely adept at perceiving far more than words and developing gut feeling (what the Japanese call haragei) about people and situations.
Six basic nonverbal techniques for facilitators.
1. Face people squarely. This says, “I’m available to you; I choose to be with you.”
2. Adopt an open posture. Crossed arms and legs say, “I’m not interested.” An open posture shows your group members that you’re open to them and what they have to say.
3. Maintain good eye contact. Have you ever talked to someone whose eyes seemed to be looking at everything in the room but you?
4. Watch your group. Learn to read their nonverbal behavior: posture, body movements and gestures. Notice frowns, smiles, raised eyebrows and twisted lips. The way your group members say something can tell you more than what the words they speak. Remember, though, the same nonverbal behavior can have multiple meanings.
5. Give nonverbal feedback. Nod. Smile. Raise your eyebrows. These small signals mean more than you realize. They’ll encourage your group to open up even more.
6. The last step in listening is speaking. Restate in your own words what your group members say. That proves you were listening and gives them the opportunity to correct or clarify.
You’ll develop your own nonverbal presence.
Everyone recognizes that some individuals -such as successful salespeople and politicians- have a certain appeal or presence. Some call this ability personal charisma. When charismatic people enter a room, they enchantingly draw attention and may enliven the whole gathering. For years, people have referred to this quality as “charm,” “presence,” “an aura” or “sex appeal.” Such people are not just highly motivated or physically attractive. Rather, they use certain nonverbal skills (such as parallel gestures) that they have learned, either consciously or unconsciously. Most people can learn to project this aura.
- Motivating Teams
- Conceptual Pluralism
- Learning Systems and Systems Learning
- Evoking Integration and innovation
- Holistic Decision-Making
Other sources on communication beyond words:
- business management and the nonverbal
- emotional intelligence and people skills
- intuition and rational intelligence
Becoming adept at communicating beyond words is just one aspect of learning to transform systems. Look into the other areas:
Facilitating groups is a holistic process.
Each of the above “skills” is one view of the process.
If you’re ready, get into the process itself.
The quickest way to develop skills in systems facilitation is to find someone who is successful in helping groups create new systems and learn from them.