Silent treatment: Non-verbal cues send strong messages


So I’m watching this year’s Best Picture (again) and it strikes me that this film may also deserve an award for “Best Example of Effective Non-verbal Communication.” Now this may seem like a bit of a “duh” moment to most of you, since The Artist was, after all, a silent film, but bear with me.

One of the many things the film does beautifully is to highlight what acting in a silent film meant for performers of the era: that they had to communicate—even over-communicate—a whole range of emotions and messages to their audience without the use of words. They couldn’t simply rely on the written captions that would occasionally pop up during the scene. The audience had to “feel” what they were “saying” even without the captions.

The great Spencer Tracy once famously said that good acting really was simply about knowing your lines and not bumping into the furniture. Even if we overlook the gross oversimplification that statement represents for contemporary actors, it certainly wouldn’t have been good advice for actors in the silent era.

Learning their lines would have been only a small part of the job. Silent film actors had to rely almost exclusively on facial expressions, posture, gestures and other non-verbal cues to get their points across. I mean, who knew so many emotions could be communicated through an eyebrow?

In fact, I would argue that if there were an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Eyebrow, Jean Dujardin would have had to do yet another acceptance speech…or maybe he could let his eyebrow do the talking? Just think of the endorsement possibilities: “Have a Coke and a Raised Brow.” Perhaps a duet of some sort with the Nike “swoosh”? Personally, I’m waiting for the workout video: “Rock-hard Eyebrows.”

All kidding aside, as leaders we have a similar challenge to Mr. Dujardin’s, since depending upon which study is cited, non-verbal communication constitutes anywhere from 50 to 90% of any face-to-face message, even those with words…lending true power to the old saying, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”

The truth is that everything we do as managers/supervisors sends a message to those we lead, including—maybe especially—our non-verbal communication.

Picture this: Your assistant comes into your office for your regular weekly meeting. He’s excited to present some new ideas to you about a project he’s been working on. He’s right on time, sits in the chair provided across the desk from you and waits to start. You’re in the middle of finishing up a response to an e-mail, so you make him wait until you’re finished (non-verbal message: You’re not as important to me as the person I’m writing this e-mail to).

You finally turn from your computer, leaning way back in your chair and positioning your hands on top of your head with elbows back (non-verbal message: I’m bored to death…Oh, and check out these biceps).

He starts talking and you listen, but you’re staring out your window as you do so, giving—you think—the impression of thoughtful introspection (non-verbal message: I’d rather be golfing).

He gets to the part of his weekly update where he starts to present his ideas. You’re distracted by the trade magazine on your desk and find yourself glancing through that as he’s talking (non-verbal message: You’re not as important to me as this article I can read anytime).

Halfway through his report, a peer of yours calls to follow up on that e-mail you just sent her. You hold up a finger, indicating that you have to take the call and proceed to do so, making your assistant wait to continue his update.

Toward the end of what should have been a short meeting with your assistant, a text message comes in on your phone and you, of course, begin reading that message as he’s talking, because, hey, you’re that important. By the way, multi-tasking, you say? No such thing.

Contrary to its popular use, multi-tasking is not doing several things at once; it’s stopping one thing to do something else, and then returning to what you were working on, and so on, so that in the course of a set time period, you’ve accomplished several things. Astronaut Jerry Linenger, who first popularized the term, used it to describe his routine on the Mir space station, where he often had to interrupt an experiment to perform some other duty on the station.

Hal Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, puts it this way: “When you really study precisely what people’s brains are doing at any moment, there’s less concurrent processing than you might think. The brain is more of a time-share operation.”
Of course, it depends on which parts of the brain each activity uses. Walking and chewing gum? No problem (for most of us). Texting and driving? Not so much.

So can you really read that e-mail and listen to your assistant’s proposal? No…and even if you could, what sort of message are you sending him?

How about trying this the next time he comes in? Instead of having the desk between you, move around to a chair next to him, or better yet, meet in his workspace or a conference room…or heck, go to Starbucks. This removes the psychological barrier of the desk between you, while also getting you away from your computer screen and your office phone.

If he arrives on time and you’re in the middle of doing something else, stop doing it. That unfinished e-mail response will still be there when he’s done. Then, radical concept, when he’s talking, whether in your office or Starbucks, lean forward and look him in the eye as he’s talking to you and…actually listen to him. Don’t pay any attention to your cell-phone or computer. Don’t have any reading material nearby to distract you.

Non-verbal message: I care about what you’re working on and am interested in your progress.

Now, if you can just lift your left eyebrow a bit…

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes your comments at