Our days are filled with conversations, text messages, social media, and the myriad of other ways we send and receive messages. When we talk about communication, we are usually thinking of these. And while we occasionally make missteps in haste (and hit “Reply All” when we want to send to one person) mostly we are aware of what we are sending and receiving. But what about the silent messages we send. Those are often the most important ones. They are constant in any face-to-face interactions, and can be present in phone calls. If we are not attuned to them, we may make blunders far more serious than “Reply All.”

In What My Time in Theater Taught Me About Corporate Communication, Monique Maley referred to the conversations we are aware of as Information not Communication. It was a novel way for me to look at what is happening during our silent communications. So much can be gained or lost without our being conscious of it occurring.

To add depth to their performances, actors are highly aware of the importance of silent communication. They portray emotions beyond their words. With the right skills, they can tell us, without a word, that they cannot be trusted. I can remember seeing Alan Rickman in Dangerous Liaisons. In one scene his body was absolutely still, and then he moved one finger. The audience knew he was lying and about to do something abhorrent.

Maley offers the following thoughts and advice to those of us who aren’t actors:

  • We are perpetually in dialogue – Anytime we come in contact with others the conversation begins. Although you are both sender and receiver of information, most frequently it’s your role as receiver that is most important. The speaker/sender is using many parts of their body, and you need to be attuned to them.

Maley talks about noting their energy level. I’ve recognized that most often in students. They are like a shaken can of soda and any one thing can cause it to pop open. You can spot it in their finger and eye movements. Does the other person seem distracted or impatient? Does their smile reach their eyes?

When you read the silent communication, you are able to tailor your response so it’s more likely to be received. While doing so, consider the message you are silently sending. The receiver may not be aware of the signals, but they will respond to it.

  • We must be fully present – When you allow something to distract you, you break the communication. That break may cause you to miss a turn the conversation has taken and picking up the thread can be difficult. This can give the other person the impression that you are not interested, or they are not important.

Maley recalls playing Cordelia in King Lear when the lead actor suddenly spoke lines from Hamlet. Being fully present allowed her to bring him back. If the person speaking to you is distracted, they might go off on another topic. The sooner you can detect that shift, the quicker you can return the conversation to its initial direction. It also gives you the ability to see if they are present to your words or if your message isn’t landing. Maley states, “Being full present isn’t just a skill; it’s a muscle that needs to be built up and practiced.”

  • Our verbal and non-verbal communication must match – When our words say one thing, but our body language says another, we are perceived as insincere. The receiver may not know why they feel you are not giving them the truth, but they will sense it. Maley writes, “Mastering this skill helps ensure that you don’t unintentionally make people defensive, destroy your credibility or harm their perception of you.”

Your mindset is critical in keeping your body language aligned with your words. For example, it’s not enough to meet the kids in your toughest class with a smile and cheery greeting.” You can prepare yourself with the thoughts of, “We are going to have some fun together” and then show them that belief.

Putting these together allows your communication to focus on engagement. Being conscious of the silent communication of others will ensure that the message you want to send gets through. And perhaps, the next time you watch television or a movie, notice the non-verbal language of the actors to learn from them how you’re communicating at all times.

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