Isn’t it amazing just how much information we can transmit … without saying a single word!

I was reminded of this fact when having a cup of coffee in a shopping centre recently. Near to me was seated an excited five year old and her patient mother. The child was excitedly, and with increasing volume, describing a toy that she really wanted. Finally the volume rose to become noticeable to all the other patrons and the mother simply lifted her eyebrows and placed a finger against her lips – result? Instant noise reduction!

Without a single word, her message was clearly understood by the child, who reacted accordingly.

We, ourselves, will often resort to similar actions to get our message across and often the meanings will transcend culture – a nod, a smile, a frown; these are all instantly understood by most people in the world, and their meanings are similar.

That non-verbal messages can be very powerful is readily understood by members of the military and I sometimes smile to myself when a wife wants to signal her husband across a crowded room. A discrete pat to the top of her head; a simple rearrangement of the coiffure perhaps? Then the husband dutifully appears by her side. Was it magic? Well, No, – just a silent message to him that she wanted to speak to him.

And the use of the action also gives me a message – it means that she was a member of the military and is used to using field signals – as indeed was the husband. All that from a simple patting of the hairstyle!!

But our silent messages need not be so visual; often we are made aware of a person’s emotional response to our words only by the merest blink of an eyelid; or a bite of the lip, or the slightest raised eyebrow. All these are enough for us to realise that maybe the listener is not in complete agreement with what we are saying – and we can then choose our response.

We may question them “You look as if you don’t agree with me, what are your thoughts on the subject” especially if we like to engage in robust debate. Or we can quickly change the subject, if we prefer a quieter life. Either way, our decision is an outcome of the unspoken message we received and our interpretation of the meaning.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing, but we appear to make our assumptions of the speaker’s credibility by watching the fleeting expressions that inadvertently pass across the face. And we are usually not impressed by someone who refuses to look us in the face. This can cause some difficulty for those cultures who find direct eye contact very confronting. In our Interview Skills Workshop we encounter this reaction, and suggest that a slight adjustment of the eye contact can help them to maintain their cultural sensitivity, yet at the same time create an impression of frank interaction.

It isn’t a perfect solution, but then what is? When two cultures have differing attitudes to something as highly interactive as emotional facial recognition, there needs to be some flexibility.

For myself, I find myself watching people’s faces for clues as to how my message is being received. It gives me early warning of storms ahead, or it can confirm that we are on the same wave length. Without that interaction I feel that I have lost an important communication tool that helps me to interpret my listener’s emotional response.

So, the challenge for today is to make a deliberate attempt to become aware of the silent messages being sent to you. Watch faces with interest, and see if you can pick up on emotional responses before a word is spoken.

It is a fascinating occupation, but remember, there is a fine line between watching expressions for emotions, and simply staring at people.

The word for today is – discrete!

Michele @ Trischel
With one raised eyebrow, and a slightly quizzical expression!

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