Tune Up Your Nonverbal Skills

Both Self Awareness and Observation

One tool of the many tools we provide in “B”, Communicator Skills training, is nonverbal communicator skills.  Nonverbal skills will help you and your communicators to prepare for challenging communication situations on any issue (safety, health, environmental, fairness/justice, economic, political, social, cultural or historical) in any situation with any stakeholder.


Risk communication communicators must have good nonverbal skills both self awareness and observation skills.  Nonverbal skills are critical in the skill area responding to negative emotions, one of the three arenas that communicators have to operate in on a daily basis.  These nonverbal skills are also important to a lesser degree in the other two discussion arenas of agendas and risk perception.


Nonverbal communication is how we communicate our emotions, both positive and negative.  All of us are communicating our positive and negative emotions daily.  Even so called “stoics” can be read by others.  Nonverbal communication is much more important than words in tense, stressful situations.  In these situations you are judged more by how you communicate more than what you communicate.  For example, juries make their decisions based on both facts (the what) and their judgment (the how) of the character of witnesses.  In complex trials with lots of competing facts and witnesses, the jury will usually be influenced by their nonverbal observations of the witnesses.  Another example: detectives and law enforcement personnel must have excellent nonverbal skills to be effective in their jobs.  Likewise, when you are in risk communication situations, you need excellent nonverbal skills.  You are and your fellow risk communicators are judged by stakeholders about your “how” more than your “what”.  So, you must step up/tune up your nonverbal skills.


There are two general areas of nonverbal skills for you and your fellow risk communicators to tune up: a) self awareness and b) observation.  Increasing your self awareness skills does not mean you should change who you are.  For example, we don’t teach that communicators should lean at a certain degree while standing or sitting or position their hands/arms a certain way or maintain a certain percent of eye contact, etc.  We provide some guidelines regarding these areas, but these guidelines are helpful suggestions, not rigid rules.   If you or your fellow risk communicators focus on rules of posture, hand/arm position, eye contact, etc, you won’t be focusing on the right things which are your observation skills and using other risk communication skills you have learned and practiced.  Also, there are too many nonverbal cultural differences just in the United States let alone the world regarding eye contact, space, voice tone to have a template of posture, hands, etc rule that applies universally.  So if you are prepared emotionally, your non verbal skills will be okay.


The key aspect about self awareness of nonverbal communication is to learn what you do with your body (including space) and voice when you feel negative emotions such as anger, irritation, boredom, etc.  This awareness allows you to quickly determine that you must try to get out of this negative emotional state or you will not be an effective communicator.  That is, use the awareness as a trigger for you to say to yourself, “I need to stop getting angry/nervous/ irritated.  I’m doing the best I can.  Calm down.”  (There is an old saying, “Speak while you are angry and you may make the best speech you ever regretted.”)  Also, don’t forget, people watching you and listening to you will pick up your non verbal cues.  You can’t completely hide your negative emotions.


When we were in the chemical industry dealing with internal and external stakeholders, we both had various nonverbal signals that we were unaware of, e.g., twisting a ring, rubbing a nose, backing up slightly, looking away, cupping the left hand, etc.  Most of these occurred when we were becoming irritated, angry, or nervous.   In hindsight, we would have been more effective communicators with more self awareness.  Self awareness of these non verbal triggers does not mean that you should go through most of your daily life worrying about these triggers.  These are only for you to be aware of when you are in challenging situations that the risk communication field requires, particularly one of the three risk communication arenas of dealing with negative emotions.


Two easy ways to tune up your self awareness nonverbal skills is to ask a close friend, spouse, significant other or relative about how you sometimes use body language or voice change that indicates to them an emotion you are feeling.  Another way to tune up your self awareness is to videotape yourself then observe the video for your nonverbal triggers.  Of course few people enjoy this experience, but if you can keep your sense of humor, it’s a great learning technique.


Observation skills are also critical, particularly when you are communicating with a stakeholder who is angry, fearful, irritated or concerned.  You and your fellow communicators should first be aware of that negative emotion, adapt to it on the spot, and apply the appropriate communication skills.


An important observation skill is keeping “big eyes, big ears and a small mouth,” particularly in the arena of risk communication.  Note that your eyes and ears won’t get you in trouble, but your mouth might!  If your stakeholders then calm down, your mouth can become a bit bigger as you start discussing facts.  Nonverbal observation skills include observing stakeholder face, hands, posture, space, eye contact, various movements and voice changes.


A key principle of nonverbal observations is that no one gesture alone usually means a thing!  For example, folded arms could mean closed off, stand offish, defensive, angry, they are cold, they are comfortable, bored (have you ever seen anyone fall asleep with their arms folded?) just to name a few.  As you observe the folded arms what else is going on with their body, voice and, in some instances, their interaction with others.


Another key principle of nonverbal observation is that “changes” in body, voice, space, eye contact, etc, frequently mean something.  For example, if someone suddenly starts speeding up their voice rate, it might mean they are nervous or it might mean they are not telling the truth, or it might mean they noticed you weren’t listening and decided to quickly end the conversation, or it might mean they just saw the time and realized they had to be somewhere else.  In this situation, good nonverbal observation skills will first notice the change then think about why they sped up, then look and listen for other changes.  This is important information (intelligence) for you.


A third key principle of nonverbal observation is that the voice and body are connected.  State the following question, “Would you like to go to dinner?”  First state this sentence in an upbeat tone, that is, make your voice go up on the last three words, “go to dinner”.   If you did this, your eyes probably opened a bit, your eye brows raised and you had a positive expression on your face.  Now repeat the question and say the last three words, “go to dinner” by dropping your voice lower.  Now repeat the question a third time by again lowering your voice tone on the last three words and try to make your face positive/happy.  We have yet to see anyone in our classes that was able to do this – a good example of how the voice and body are connected.  So when you are observing others in risk communication what voice/body connection did you see/hear?  Yogi Berra said, “You can learn a lot just by watching.”  We would add, “You can learn a lot by just watching and listening.”


Finally, big eyes and ears are very important in group settings.  How is the group in general reacting to you and each of your fellow communicators?  Another example, if someone in each of the groups gets rude or angry, what is the reaction by the rest of the group?  If you sense that you are not being listened to, what will you do?  There are many other non verbal aspects like these for group interaction.


In summary nonverbal communication is a key part effective risk communication, particularly in dealing with negative emotions.  All of us have excellent nonverbal skills when we need them which fortunately is not too frequently.  So, go ahead and tune up your skills: learn more about yourself.  Next time you are in a meeting, observe what is going on nonverbally or ask a fried about yourself.



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