Can you hear me now?

Remember that really annoying (but memorable) mobile phone ad where this guy makes his way into various locales testing his phone service? His image came to mind when I was pondering the topic of this blog. We’re in the communications business, but so much of what we do each day – and the counsel we give – is also dependent upon our interpretation of the situation, messages, what is said and what is not.  

Everyone wants to be heard – clients, media, colleagues, friends, kids, spouses, parents, even the family dog. What I’ve learned in my more than 20 years in PR and ten years as a mom, is that often it’s what is unsaid that matters most. In fact, research shows that 93 percent of messages are communicated non-verbally. If you don’t “listen” carefully, you might miss those subtle cues, nuances and takeaways and things could go horribly wrong.

These are some the things I’ve learned along the way:

Don’t be tone deaf Monotone, dismissive, frightened, anxious, angry, frustrated, resigned, determined — whatever the emotion, the tone of someone’s voice can be telling. They could be blowing you off while saying they’re interested or vice versa. Tuning into tone can provide a greater takeaway than the words themselves and help you truly get where the individual is coming from and what approach to take next.

Consider the climate There’s a whole lot that goes on behind the scenes – whether it’s internal workings at a company, market factors or personal life. Taking a read on these factors can provide valuable context if you pay attention. Asking your sister to cough up $1,000 for a bridesmaid dress when she’s in the midst of divorce and foreclosure seems like a no-brainer, as does expecting a huge bonus when your company is bleeding money, yet it’s surprising to me how often these factors are discounted, often to someone’s detriment. At best, you’ll come off as clueless and at worst, downright insensitive.  

Speak the same “language” “It’s a go” could mean approved, or no go. “Go big or go home” sounds like support of thinking big – but just how big is up for interpretation. A “great” from a boss or client could be the highest form of praise or feedback that your work is mediocre. And guys, when a woman asks you how she looks, don’t tell her she looks “fine” unless it’s “lady, you look FINE,” (as in you’re the most beautiful woman in the room).  “Fine” should also not be used to describe the dinner that your significant other slaved over. Comprende? Just like visiting a foreign country, understanding the language of an organization – or an individual – can help you better navigate and communicate in a way that is clearly understood and appreciated.  

Silence can be deadly – No news is good news doesn’t always apply. A long pause at the end of a phone line, days or weeks with no response or no “likes” on your Facebook post, all could spell trouble. Don’t struggle to fill that silence but analyze the cause. Does your idea bite or does your client just need a little time to digest? Is that new business prospect MIA or is the proposal review process taking longer? Maybe the individual with whom you are communicating is frustrated, disappointed or at a loss for words and is struggling to maintain composure or develop a response (as was the case of my stunned silence when the question about “the talk” was presented by my then 9-year-old (see my crisis blog).

Get a cue If you are at a client event in the evening, it’s not the time to break your college drinking record, especially if the client is abstaining. Those of us who are parents have all been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of blank stares and nods as our children completely ignore us. The same applies in the professional world – texting, IM’ing and checking Facebook during a meeting (or worse, a dinner) are a sure sign that the individual is tuned out. And a smile that doesn’t reach someone’s eyes may mean they are gritting their teeth and bearing it or just humoring you. Take note and change course.

Read between the lines “I’ll do it.” “It’s OK.” “No problem.” “It’s (or I’m) fine.” “No worries.” “You’ll hear from me soon.” “I’ve got it covered.” There is a laundry list of these responses that often carry double meaning. Depending upon who this response is coming from and under what circumstance, it could mean just the opposite. Don’t always take these at face value. Sometimes a little probing will uncover a completely different piece of information – what the individual is not coming straight out and saying. The effort you put into finding out more about where they are coming from will often pay off in spades.

A picture is worth a thousand words – Whatever words are coming out of a person’s mouth, a frozen smile, rolling or shifty eyes, crossed arms and closed body language, a smirk, yawn, raised eyebrow or sideways glance may tell you otherwise. It could be fleeting and last a few seconds, but paying attention to these slight signals can provide insight into what the person is  really saying or thinking.

Keep these in mind and people might just think you are enlightened, or a fortune teller, or both! Nonetheless, your attention to  nonverbal communication will be appreciated.

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