Listen to Your Gut
The song writer/satirist/mathematician Tom Lehrer once commented that people complained that (other) people don’t communicate well any more. He said ‘if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up.’
This is the first in a series of blogs on various aspects of communication. In this blog I want to outline various elements that will be discussed. I’m somewhat naturally analytical, so for me, communication, verbal more so than written, involves intuition as well as observation.
In the course of my professional life in social service, I developed a strong awareness of the elements of communication. At one point, I had learnt American Sign Language, which was a huge asset even after I ran out of hearing impaired people for whom to sign (I changed jobs). Half of sign language involves facial expression and body language. It’s practically impossible to tell a deaf person a lie, because while your hands say ‘yes’, everything else about you says ‘no’.
Communication entails much more than just words coming out someone’s mouth and going into your ears. On a subconscious level, you also pay attention to: word choice, word order, tone, inflection and emphasis. You are aware of facial expressions, body language, physical orientation (how the body is angled, the distance from speaker to listener, etc). It might surprise you to realize that you also pay attention to how you viscerally respond to a statement, and also to the images that may come to mind.
Let’s take these two examples of the same basic statement.
A) Please pass the salt. B) Pass the salt please.
A differs from B only in the order of the wording, but A conveys a simple request, while B suggests an expectation, perhaps a politely worded demand, and also a sense of relationship (which I’ll discuss in a moment). Of course, A spoken with clenched teeth suggests you might not survive the meal if you don’t pass the salt, and B with an emphasis on the please suggests your fellow diner is in desperate need of sodium chloride, and may even be somewhat exasperated owing to its immediate non-delivery.
Did you know that a person can also communicate his/her sense of relationship as well, even in a few words? Taking example B (pass the salt please) the speaker implies that you don’t actually have a choice because in your interpersonal relationship, you are considered subordinate to the speaker. I once made changes to the settings on someone’s computer (at her request). When her husband discovered this, he said, ‘Change it back please,’ but there was no question that this was anything but a casual command. His tone was civil and non-threatening, but he wasn’t looking at me when he spoke (he was reading his mail); the lack of eye contact and his physical orientation made it clear he had no investment in persuading me, he simply expected it to be done. You don’t have to engage someone (as you would by means of eye contact) when you’re the superior.
Eye contact is also important because it communicates, among other things, the speaker’s investment in his statement. A man once introduced me to a group of people as ‘our friend,’ but we all noticed that he was staring off into space as he spoke, and something felt wrong to me when he said it. He didn’t really believe it. It has since been confirmed that I am on the outermost periphery of this individual’s social orbit and affections. Of course, too much eye contact can have the opposite effect—‘look at me because I don’t want you looking anywhere else.’
All these factors that I’ve described come from the speaker, and are under the speaker’s conscious (but not subconscious) control. There are two factors that the speaker does not control, and are very persuasive: your visceral response, and the mental image a statement may conjure.
We respond viscerally (instinctively, as I’m using it here) with different parts of our body. I usually have a gut response. When I was told to ‘change it back please,’ I felt tightening in my stomach, and distinctly subordinate. I once listened to a theoretically charismatic lecturer delivering a short speech. He used a lot of exciting sounding words, tonal inflections and gestures; the audience seemed quite stimulated by what he said. However, as I was leaving, my stomach felt empty and unsatisfied. I realized that although he sounded wonderful and learned, the lecturer hadn’t actually said a damned thing!
Mental images are important too! Early in my career, I met with a young couple who were having some marital difficulties. As the husband spoke, I had the mental image of him, dressed in an oilskin, piloting a small boat through stormy seas while his wife was battened down under the hatches. When I mentioned this image, his wife said, ‘That’s exactly what it’s like!’
Listen to your gut!