Coach’s Corner Blog

3 Types Of “Silent Messages” That Speak Very Loudly

February 3, 2015 by Leave a Comment


The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said. – Peter Drucker

I took some out-of-town guests to see a show at Second City over the holidays. Second City has had a remarkable influence on comedy since it began in the 1950s. The number of Saturday Night Live alumni who hail from Second City is huge.

I always enjoy the late show on the weekend because after the regular show, the troupe comes out to do live improvisation where the audience can call out the topic. It’s wildly inventive and a joy to see these performers strut their stuff.

During this most recent visit one of the members of the troupe walked into the audience, grabbed my hand and pulled me up on stage for a five-minute period that both frightened and delighted me.

Not one word was spoken between myself and the female actor as we fed each other pudding and then shared a couple beers together – all imaginary of course. I had quite a bit of fun with it and the audience gave me a nice little hand when I sat down.

As I described this to a friend the other night, it made me reflect on the fact that all of this behavior was of a non-verbal variety. Again, no words were spoken but we engaged in a lighthearted interaction.

This really made me consider the critical importance of not only non-verbal communication but the non-verbal cues that we both give and interpret in our regular business and personal interactions.

I’d like to review three broad areas of these cues and provide some insight about how we react and how we might be able to take advantage of these ideas to make our communication more impactful.

Please be aware that there is nothing “absolute” about any of these observations and the context of the situation and the quality of the relationship among those interacting can also influence the “silent” messages that are being conveyed.

My goal is that you will be able to better recognize and use these non-verbal cues to enhance the effectiveness of your communication and to reduce the unintended consequences of their potential impact.

1. Approach – Avoidance

We approach or move towards those things that we like or are attracted to. We tend to pull back, even recoil, from those things that are unpleasant or that we would rather avoid.

We may not think along these lines when it comes to ideas or the business associates that are communicating those ideas, but our non-verbal behavior projects these types of reactions. Here are several behavioral cues that display this non-verbal reality:

  • Proximity: we tend to sit or stand closer to those we like or are drawn to.
  • Touching: we may reach out to touch an elbow or put a hand on someone’s shoulder when we’re making a point, but we rarely do that to those we may be less favorably inclined towards.
  • Attentiveness: if someone is speaking that we admire, are drawn to or respect, we tend to shut out distractions more easily and maintain focus. Even if we don’t care for the individual, we will be more attentive if the subject interests us.
  • Handshakes: a firm, friendly handshake, especially coupled with good eye contact, says a lot when we greet someone or say goodbye. A soft or wimpy handshake may be a style issue, and a crushing grip may project aggressiveness as well.
  • Questions: we will tend to ask more questions on topics we are drawn to, unless we choose to pepper the speaker in an aggressive or accusatory manner with a volume of questions.
  • Seating Angle: we tend to lean into a speaker when we are interested or attracted to either them or the topic; we tend to pull back and away from those topics that have the opposite impact. Caution: some people pull back momentarily to simply ponder a situation; they will probably lean back in when they hear something on a topic that appeals to them.

2. Arousal – Non-Arousal

We get excited about ideas and the people we are interacting with when they interest us. We tend to withdraw or get distracted when we are not. Here are several behavioral cues that display this non-verbal reality:

  • Facial Expressiveness: our facial expressions denote interest, joy or fascination with raised eyebrows, smiles and nodding in agreement. When we dislike a speaker or their ideas, you’ll see frowns, head-shaking or even puzzled looks.
  • Rate of Speech: when we’re excited about an idea we tend to speak more quickly and in a more animated fashion. The opposite of this is not always dislike of an idea because some folks purposely slow down the rate of speech to add emphasis.
  • Volume: our enthusiasm or support for an idea will oftentimes lead to speaking in increased volumes. Short, curt responses at low volumes can show the opposite.
  • Open vs. Closed Gestures: open gestures such as open palms or active gesticulating can denote a positive take on an idea whereas crossed arms and pulling back in the chair can often denote a lack of interest or hostility to an idea.
  • Eye Contact: consistent eye contact with a speaker shows that you are interested and taking in what they have to say. Rolling or averting the eyes has the opposite effect. Glaring at someone with an intense stare and other elements of facial expression can reflect concern or disbelief.

3. Dominance – Submissiveness

I had to really think about this category when I first read about it, but it’s a very important and impactful one.

In some regards, it reflects gender differences and biases that exist. The demonstration of dominance or submissiveness is often probably not purposely projected, but these not so subtle cues do convey significant meaning.

Here are several behavioral cues that display this non-verbal reality:

  • Relaxed Posture: if we sit in a very symmetrical manner with our arms and legs straight, we may project an image of the kids who are called to the principal’s office. If we cross our legs or sit more asymmetrically in a chair, that relaxed posture can project a level of confidence and control.
  • Comfortable/Tense: it’s pretty normal to be rather tense in a new situation with new people. That natural apprehensiveness keeps us on our “emotional toes” until we reach a level of comfort with the people or situation we’re involved with. There are times where you’re going to want to coach yourself to not appear tense.
  • Sit/Stand: this gets back to the symmetry of a situation. If you were standing over somebody who is sitting, that’s referred to as a “power distance”. If you’re both either standing or sitting, that power distance can be mitigated. Walking in and sitting down in someone’s office tends to “level the playing field”.
  • Respect for Personal Space: the idea of personal space is the amount of distance that people are comfortable with in interacting with others. The differences in the personal definition of this span gender, cultural and international factors. I have one good friend whose definition of personal space seems like it’s about 4 inches. Trust and familiarity will give you better insights into this over time.

I hope this summary of cues provides insights for how you can develop this critical element of the communication “vibration” you project to others. Use it to help you diagnose what bothers you and as a tool to improve your impact on others. Ask yourself:

  • Are there a couple of non-verbal responses that convey “silent messages” that you did not intend recently? How could you have adjusted your responses to be more impactful or reduce any unintended negatives?
  • How can you adjust your “silent messages” to purposely demonstrate more support for ideas or a person in meetings?
  • What is one non-verbal behavior that you can more purposefully engage in to show your influence in a positive manner?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments. Please share your experiences or ideas with us all in the comments section at the end of this post.

Adapted from Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes


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