Do you sometimes feel that others receive your communication differently from the way you intend it? Do your discussions have a different effect than you wanted? You might want to consider whether you're sending mixed messages with your nonverbal language.

Studies show that what you say - your words - accounts for only 7% of what others perceive of you. The balance - 93% - stems from body language, facial expression, and voice tone. Your words may belie your feelings, but your body and voice rarely do.

Nonverbal barriers to effective communication

  • Incongruent words and body language. If you' re praising someone for a job well done but aren't making eye contact or smiling, what message do you think your audience is receiving? Your facial expression contradicts the apparent meaning of your message, and the listener receives conflicting messages, reducing your credibility. To be most effective, your voice tone, body posture, breathing, muscle tension (or relaxation), gestures, and movements should support your words. Make your gestures and facial expressions congruent with your message. If you aren't sure of your own body language quirks (things you do without realizing it), try videotaping various conversations to check out your physical communication.
  • Voice tone. You've no doubt experienced anger or hurt stemming not so much from what someone else said as how they said it. Voice tone accounts for about 38% of how people respond to what you say (or how you respond to them), which is why many people experience problems in electronic communication - there's no voice tone to modify or soften the words! One good example, since many people have no idea that their voice and body tell tales their words don't, is to tape several routine conversations, so you get a sense of how you sound and can assess whether your communication came across as you intended. Of course, if you tape, ensure your discussion partner gives her approval!
  • Mixed signals. Be careful not to send mixed signals with your body language. For example, your employees might perceive you to be angry with them because you have a frown on your face when speaking to them. You may not be angry at all, but simply concentrating on what they are saying. Be mindful of your body language.
  • "Re-acting" instead of responding. We often "re-act" to another person based on something that' s happened to us before. Responding rather than re-acting requires discipline, but it' s critical. For example, an employee has just entered your office, where you' re having coffee with a colleague after a trying day. She asks you - for the third time - for clarification on an assignment. If you re-act out of frustration or anger, this inquiry may escalate into a relationship-damaging interaction and possibly give your colleague a negative impression of you.

    One professional response: Stepping out of earshot of your colleague, you might say something such as, "We' ve spoken about this several times, Frankie, so I' m a bit concerned. You agreed to do such-and-such for the Miller project and get that to me by tomorrow at 3 p.m. Can you tell me what you understand your assignment on this to be, so we both feel confident about your ability to meet that deadline as agreed?"
  • Are you kidding? Sometimes people tell jokes or make light of serious subjects to get their point across. Not all humor is appropriate, and not everyone has comic delivery. In fact, lawsuits have sprung up from indiscriminate humor in the workplace. Even a simple smile or a wink can offend. Good judgment about when to use humor, including facial expression, is key! This is even more important in electronic communication, when people can' t see your body language. Take care in choosing friendly, professional language, or use an "emoticon" - the little symbol for smile - to make your point. Instead of e-mailing or telling questionable jokes to the entire staff, assume that most people would be offended. Better to be pleasant and safe than sorry.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.

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