It’s The Way He Said It! Speaking the Unspoken Language

Originally Published in the Star Malaysia 07.09.14 for Leaderonomics

How many times have you heard someone walk into the room uttering the words: “It’s not what he said, It’s how he said it!” The phrase is usually said in negative reaction to messages uttered by bosses, who seem to be (as research would indicate) the primary reason why good employees leave the company. Could they have been simply misunderstood?

The workplace of the millennium has changed wherein there is greater integration of diversity from all aspects. We have multigenerational perspectives, gender as well as varying levels of cultural and ethnic diversities. This makes the workplace more dynamic for leaders who only want to come across and be able to communicate strategic direction or perhaps just maintain the delicate balance in the working environment. In other levels, being able to communicate extends beyond the doors of the office. You can be on the phone with a client or even face to face with them. In many varying aspects, it is easy to think that speaking another language could be a plus.

When I was working through school in the US, I worked in a clinic which processed almost 100 patients per day. During those moments of having to speak with many of them, I thought it would be great to learn how to speak Spanish. So I did, and I still carry this learning to this date. However it was not about the language per se where we received some of the most violent objections. Most of the time they complained about how they were treated through process delays but more importantly they were usually upset at how rudely they were treated by staff. “Rudeness” tends to be subjective as sometimes in multicultural environments, accents and inflections were grossly misinterpreted. In other aspects, this issue of communication is beyond words where you might find some cultures are more gesticulate than others. A head nod in one culture could be totally ambiguous or even opposite to another. A wave of the hand could either be a welcome or a curse. The effects of these non-verbal signals could be devastating. Subjective as it may be, these valid human encounters are worth managing.

The workplace is no different as people need to be considered as internal customers. As a leader you should also look at your staff as consumers of your leadership. But there’s more to communication than the spoken language. Most often you will find people again and again upset saying: “It’s not what he said, it’s how he said it!” Words seem to fail us, and even if I consider myself to be a pretty good writer, I still find myself having to meet face to face in order for me to accurately convey what I mean. According to recent articles, employees don’t leave their jobs they leave their leaders citing that “poor communication” is often the cause of the break-ups.

There is a huge amount of study which suggests that a majority of how we communicate is “non-verbal”. This is literally beyond words (pun intended) where most of our messages are construed mostly out of delivery rather than the words themselves. So goes the familiar phrase again: “It’s not what you say, but rather HOW you say it!” In a long term study conducted on communication, Researchers: Mehrabian & Wiener in 1967 and Mehrabian and Ferris in 1967 resulted upon the often quoted 55/38/7 formula.The numbers represent the percentages of importance of varying communication channels have with the belief that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken.

While the percentages are often misused and misquoted, a vast majority would agree to the point that the majority of what we perceive is non-verbal cues over the actual words used and thus validates the issue that non-verbal communication and the unspoken language are equally if not more important than words in communication. This argument behooves leaders to take a closer look at “how” they say things rather than “what” they say.

Thousands of years before the invention of emails and even way beyond the fax machine, there was a classic tradition called oration. Oration or Ars Oratia was a Roman art of speaking in public which was linked to an inherited tradition from Greece. Oration was considered a highly developed professional competence that was necessary for leaders to learn. Even Julius Caesar during his youth was said to have been schooled by masters in Greece to learn this fine art. In modern times this Greco-Roman remains to be a highly developed professional competence that is traditionally carried by lawyers and politicians. In the modern sense from which most modern legal dramas are played, “Trial Lawyers” or Barristers take to the courtrooms to deliver a persuasive argument in front of juries and judges. With persuasion and influence being the desired effect of these skillful displays, it is easy to think that effective delivery goes beyond just words but everything else that delivers a persuasive argument.

In my own formal study as a speaker, we were also taught that delivery is much more than words and that delivery in the non-verbal aspect can be broken down into the following elements.

  • Vocalics or Paralinguistic – Beyond words this could include inflection, tone and pronunciation. This is how most perceptions are based. This is “how” things are said and therefore perceived or received. Pay attention to your tone of voice and the volume when you speak. Paralinguistic can also refer to sounds which are non words such as: hmmm, huh or ugh! Even if these sounds are not really words, they could be equally if not more communicative to the receiver.
  • Kinesics – includes gestures and facial expression. For example, the way you wave your arms around could affect the type of attention and reaction from your audience. When extremities are placed within a comfort zone, it could connote formality, diplomacy or sometimes defensiveness when arms are crossed or behind your back. A simple point of a finger could mean either specification or culpability.
  • Ocalics – is the use of your eyes or eye contact. This somehow is the primary point of connection with your audience. In some cultures and context, looking directly into someone’s eyes could be rude, while in some cultures if one does not look directly into the eyes, it could mean you’re hiding something and thus erodes trust. In public speaking, it is good to make eye contact with those that seem to be agreeing with you. It also helps ease pressure from the speaker as he feels like he’s connecting and conversing with his audience.
  • Proxemics – is the use of space between the speaker and the receiver. There are appropriate conventions to this that ranges from intimate (0-18”), personal (18”-4’), social (4’-12’) and public (12’-beyond). Cultural norms apply. Speakers usually stay within a 3 feet bubble, but using the space within a stage or a room by moving around could give the speaker a stronger presence. The movement also leads the audience to follow him thus creating more attention.
  • Haptics – is the use of touch. This type of body language is powerful as it could be inappropriate in some context. A touch on the wrist, the elbow or shoulder is a physical form of persuasion. Often used to connote a certain level of closeness and sympathy with the receiver. The touch is used to signal a receiver towards a concurring response or agreement. Please use this with extreme caution! It can also be construed as a form of flirting.
  • Chronemics – is the use of time and sequence. While it is expected for people to be prompt, in Latin cultures tardiness tends to be more acceptable; thus the term “fashionably late”. Tardiness is frowned upon in anglo-american cultures thus in a bilingual Hispanic American context appointments are usually specified as “Hora Latina” (Latin Hour which is +/- 30 mins) or “Hora Americana” (on the dot, or “en-punto”). On another note, for experienced speakers “the pause” which is a momentary moment of silence at the height of expectation is also used to draw tension, attention, and control for the speaker.
  • Objectics – is the use of objects such as rulers (as teachers would use), props, and illustrations to drive a point. Clothing, accessories, and even vehicles could also be used to lead the audience towards communicating a role and social status to direct an audience towards a desired response. This too is a form of non-verbal persuasion.

As a leader and communicator, one must recognize the importance of the unspoken language for effective communication. In the worst cases, “conflicting” messages are a result where non-verbal cues are inconsistent or at odds with the verbal message. This often leads to miscommunication and mistrust. The results could be extreme. It could even lead an employee to leave. On the other hand a combination of proper verbal and non-verbal cues could make a compelling message or a persuasive presentation that leads to positive action. Do remember that action within this context speaks louder than words. Learning the “unspoken language” could make you a more effective and persuasive leader in the workplace.