Most of us know that most of our communication is nonverbal. In fact, we may even be familiar with the 55/38/7 formula. That comes from body language researcher Albert Mehrabian who defined the components of a face-to-face conversation. He found that:
- 55% of communication is nonverbal,
- 38% is the tone used, and
- 7% are the words chosen.
Even if you didn’t know the percentages, I think most people are aware of this breakdown in general, but we don’t really talk about how powerful each component can be. Of course, there are some professions where word choice is incredibly important such as attorneys, doctors, or motivational speakers. But most of us aren’t so thoughtful with our words.
We are also not as good as we think we are. We’re rushed, careless, make assumptions, think we’re clear – but we’re not, and our intent doesn’t always match the impact. We convey our ideas, and simply expect that the person listening will just get it. I don’t make this assessment off-handedly. Effective communication, a leadership competency our organization evaluates in our proprietary stakeholder 360s, is frequently a very low-rated competency. Often, to the surprise of the executive who believe he or she is clear, concise, and effective. Even making an “effective request,” commonly referred to as delegating – a linguistic move that leaders make multiple times a day, is difficult for leaders to master. They aren’t even aware of all the components required until they immerse themselves in our Accountability Mirror workshop.
Let’s break down each component of a conversation.
It’s not uncommon that I bring into executive coaching sessions the topic of body language, because we are often blind to how our body is conveying our thoughts to others. Think about the last meeting you attended in the office. Think of the postures, the macro and micro-expressions that leak the true emotions of those sitting around the table or on Zoom. Dr. Paul Ekman, the world’s expert in emotions and deception detection, created online micro expressions training tools to help people read and respond to micro expressions. This is great training to build new levels of emotional intelligence and to learn how to truly “read the room.”
The body language we are more likely to be acutely aware of are the obvious physical displays of emotions that signal confidence, disinterest, defensiveness, etc. If someone comes into room with eyes downcast and their shoulders slumped, it may communicate an emotional state of disengagement, depression, or hopelessness. If suddenly at a critical juncture in a conversation, a person folds their arms across their chest, it may signal disagreement or defensiveness. Now that person may not be feeling any of those emotions, or they may be unconscious of their emotional state but that is what their body is communicating consciously or subconsciously to the meeting attendees. Every piece of you will be processed on a subconscious as well as conscious level, and it’s important to remember that.
How you walk, how you sit, how you position your body and especially your facial expressions during the meeting are all picked up by the meeting attendees and factored into their opinion of you. Your “tells” are more common than you are consciously aware of. People with very high emotional intelligence will read them masterfully, especially the micro-expressions.
There’s another level of thoughtlessness when it comes to tone, which is by far, the most important component of communication. If you say the same sentence in two different tones, they are going to land wildly different with the listener. I find it to be most obvious when the words spoken don’t match the feeling said. At a minimum, people will be confused and in a worst-case scenario, they may attribute disingenuousness to the communicator – which may in fact be the case.
Either way, we reduce the prospect of getting our message across effectively, and we may impact our brand. We may be assessed as insincere, inauthentic, or guarded. The message will not sit right with the listener, who will try to make sense of what’s really going on and what’s really being conveyed.
A few years ago, I spent a tremendous amount of time assembling a comprehensive list of over 850 words for feelings – including emotions, moods, and physical sensations. Why? Because I found even my most intelligent coaching clients could often not accurately express how they were feeling.
Stop and think about it. If someone were to ask you how you are feeling right this second, what would you say? I’m guessing your answer would consist of words like good, bad, happy, sad, or even anxious, overwhelmed, or stressed. But those words don’t even begin to accurately identify your true feelings. Research shows that when you can clearly differentiate your negative feelings, you are able to self-regulate your negative emotions more frequently. So, it’s important to start with a strong vocabulary of words we can use to communicate how we feel. This skillset is an underrated skill in the business world, but it’s foundational for building high emotional intelligence.
And, of course, the actual string of words used to communicate what success looks like, what the expectations are in delegation, and to convey clearly and concisely who owns what are where accountability lies are often not conveyed well due to poor word choice or discomfort communicating a crucial conversation.
Integrate the Components for Effective Communication
To be able to communicate effectively, we must give thought to all three components. That integration is important to really build our brand, presence, authenticity, and effectiveness. But to improve your executive presence, the change must happen from the inside out.
I will sometimes get clients who are described as “phenomenal” by their supervisors but lacking in executive presence. It may be in part because of their word choice, but often, it’s how they are experienced by others in the room. The lack of a powerful, authentic presence lies in the disempowering internal conversations they are having with themselves unconsciously, subconsciously or consciously. As a result, they may project a lack of integrated confidence, over-emphasize in an exaggerated fashion, be rigid, visibly uncomfortable, or tentative. At the core of all of those behaviors are the conversations you have with yourself, including the stories we tell ourselves that often aren’t true.
Coaching a client to build executive presence goes beyond teaching them how to project their voice or how to strike a “power pose.” Those tactical strategies don’t produce integrated confidence. Instead, we start building confidence from awareness of word choice, awareness of tone, awareness of body language, and identifying the conversations that self-sabotage.
When someone comes off as authentic and powerful, it’s because they are aligned with their thoughts, moods and behaviors. Their ego strength is solid and strong, and it’s warranted – it’s not faux ego. Now, one is truly “comfortable in their skin.” There’s zero effort or thought needed, because what you are bringing forth is your authentic self – you’re solid. And people can feel that.
Words matter, but even more important is that our tone and body language are also aligned. When you can align all three components of conversation, you will be perceived as credible and powerful. And when these behaviors are repeatable, you will start to be perceived, received and responded to differently by others. You will feel more in control, while your confidence continues to solidify.