After graduating from Texas A&M and marrying me shortly thereafter, Scott began his naval career on the USS Yorktown stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. With no children and no house payment, I was lucky enough to travel to meet his ship in Italy and France. During our trip to Paris, we used the metro to see the tourist attractions. One afternoon on the return trip to our hotel, I looked across the aisle at a girl about our age and smiled at her. She jumped out of her seat and beelined over to us shouting, “Are you Americans?” After hurried introductions (she was attending college in Paris), she said, “I knew you were American as soon as I saw your smiling face.” What a nice compliment! I loved that my facial expression was welcoming and friendly. But that same face (with its very obvious facial expressions) also got me in trouble a time or two. One afternoon during my first year teaching in Cy-Fair ISD, I attended a parent/teacher conference with my 8th grade team. The student was struggling academically but also treated teachers and other students very disrespectfully. We hoped that by meeting with his parents, we could work together to steer him in the right direction. Well, you’ve heard the expression, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”? The dad treated us (all women) with an even greater disrespect, so our very experienced counselor quickly ended the conference knowing that we would not be able to forge a plan with this dad. She asked me to stay after the meeting for a chat. “Julie, your face showed your every emotion.” Remember how earlier I thought that characteristic was a positive one? In this case, according to the counselor, as the dad negatively talked down to all of us, my face showed the disgust and anger I’m sure that we all felt. But in this professional environment, my facial expressions probably contributed to the dad’s very negative ranting and did not help the situation. So over the years, I have worked to control my facial expressions and many times repeat over and over in my head, “neutral face, neutral face” to help me remember to NOT always show how I feel.
Research shows that only 7% of what we communicate is based on the words we say while 38% is based on voice inflection. The remaining 55% comes from nonverbal expression including facial expressions and body language. In other words, over half of what we communicate is visual not verbal. Yet, we don’t spend much time or make much effort to control our nonverbal communication (at least until a wise colleague points out that we need to work on it!). We do spend a fair amount of time trying to read other’s nonverbal cues, but for today’s blog, I want to focus on what YOU can do to help more effectively communicate nonverbally.
Rule #1 - Fake it til you make it!
We all know that being engaged in the communication experience will lead to greater success and understanding. We also know that nonverbal signs of being engaged are eye contact, head nodding, leaning in towards the speaker, and mirroring the other’s body language. So if we know the nonverbal signs of being engaged, why don’t we consciously use those behaviors? Make a conscious choice to increase eye contact or lean in. Work to mirror the body language (a sign of bonding). And here’s the clincher -- as you thought you were “faking” it by making these choices, you were really “making” a better communication experience by increasing the engagement.
Rule #2 - Smile with your eyes!
Research also shows that a genuine smile includes the eyes as seen by the crinkling skin on the sides (think crow’s feet!). So it’s easy to tell if you (or anyone else) is NOT smiling in a genuine way. Don’t try to use a smile to hide what you are thinking or feeling. Instead, allow your smile to show when you are truly happy or pleased. And remember “neutral face” if you’re not so happy but don’t want it to show.
Rule #3 - Get real!
There are some universal nonverbal gestures that totally “tell on you” and show your true emotions. Crossed arms signal a barrier to communication. Lack of eye contact shows disinterest or dishonesty. Jaw tension indicates stress or discomfort. Most people can read your nonverbal cues, so work to make sure your words and facial expressions/body language are “saying” the same thing. If you are angry, perhaps you should calm down before communicating. If you are bored, work to re-engage in the communication experience. If you are happy, smile with your eyes.
Instead of a picture, I think your face (and other nonverbal gestures) is worth a thousand words, and etc Strategies believes that you can work to make sure that your facial expressions, your body language, and your words all say the same thing. So whether you smile or frown or furrow your brow, be aware of what your face (and body) is saying. And when in France (or for that matter anywhere), smile at everyone you see!!