Monday, August 13, 2012

Furrowed Brows & Rolling Eyes

I just completed a facilitation training weekend during which a student admitted that she'd never actually seen smoke coming out of another person's ears—so what were people talking about with that expression?

While most of us learn the fundamentals of reading body language and facial expressions fairly early in life, there's considerable range in people's facility in this arena, and it's enormously helpful for facilitators to be as accomplished as possible in this department.

Beyond general guidelines (that crossed arms and a red face translate to anger; that glassy eyes, a blank face, and shaking equate to fear), there is a vast variety of subtle nuances and quirks peculiar to each individual such that if you're familiar with the landscape (perhaps because that person is in your group) that you can gain valuable insight into what's going on for people whether or not they directly voice it.

When the student reported confusion about this, we did an impromptu exercise where several people in the class adopted a posture or facial expression indicative of a strong feeling and we asked the questioner to attempt an interpretation. When she was only able to read some of them accurately, we suggested that she look for an opportunity in a future meeting—one with an agenda where she didn't identify as a key stakeholder and could thus safely let her attention wander beyond content—to observe the group and see what she could pick up on when participants were changing their posture or expressions in the course of the meeting and how that might map onto their mood or energy. We further suggested that she make an arrangement ahead to sit near another group member known to be astute at reading nonverbal clues, with the agreement that she could check out her interpretations immediately afterwards.

In addition to the non-verbal, there is also a wealth of information about energy and emotional response to be mined from observing the way people speak—above and beyond what they are saying. Taken all together, this field of information is incredibly rich: in addition to changes in posture, and shifts in facial expression, there's tone of voice, volume, pace of speech, alterations in breathing rate, use of hands, changes in eye contact, frequency of requests for bathroom breaks, tendency to zone out, twitching or tapping (of hands or feet), scratching, self-grooming (I know a professional facilitator who was surprised when I told her that she had a habit of wiping her hand across her face right before she'd say something critical). While this is by no means all, it's enough to suggest the breadth of what's in play.

Mostly we work with this information subliminally, below the level of consciousness, yet it's invaluable in understanding context and energy, and good facilitators need to be competent in this aspect of communication.

(If you're having trouble understanding how potent this is as an enhancement to effective communication, think about all the mischief people can get into with email, where all the sensory inputs have been stripped out. Lacking the cues of tone, pace, and facial expressions, we make them up, and then proceed to respond to our guess as if it were true! In the more egregious cases it can take weeks to untangle the mistake.)

One of the tricky things about reading body language correctly is that some people have mannerisms that mimic standard expressions yet carry an entirely different meaning for them. If you are unaware of this, reasonable guesses can miss the mark widely. Here are two examples of ways that I tend to get in trouble in this regard.

First, when concentrating I tend to frown, or furrow my brows. This often gets interpreted as upset, because I also furrow my brows when I'm upset! Confusing, eh? As it's relatively common for me to pause during a conversation to concentrate on how to balance all that's been said, I have learned to be more sensitive to the possibility that others may think I'm having a bad reaction when I'm just seriously contemplating.

Second, when someone presents a piece of important information that's new to me in the midst of an intense conversation, I have a tendency to turn my head to the side and look off into space (typically upward) as I attempt to integrate it. Unfortunately, the speaker can experience this as my rolling my eyes and being dismissive—which is also something that I do. Imagine how hard it is for the other person to read me right in the dynamic moment!

With this in mind, I urge people to be cautious when acting on their interpretations of body language or speech patterns, especially with people they don't know that well. Instead, you can learn to be alert to shifts in behavior and the potential for asking people what that shift means. It's rare that you'll get in trouble being curious about what a new mannerism implies—even if the answer is nothing.

Finally, I suggested to the student who asked about how to become more skilled in reading non-verbal clues was to suggest that she do two more things:

A. Become as aware as possible about how you come across to others
It's relatively common for people to think that they're harder to read than they are; to mistakenly believe that they're masking feelings that: 1) they're not prepared to reveal; or 2) they aren't consciously aware are emerging. They may also be unaware of how their tendencies can be misread—I explained my awkward journey in this regard a few paragraphs earlier. It's important to know how you appear to be reacting to others.

B. Understand as thoroughly as possible how you may be susceptible to overacting in the presence of certain energies
It's valuable to know how you may misread others because of your own scarring. For example, if you grew up in a household with a father who yelled, you may be prone to overamping when an older man in the group raises his voice. If you had a sibling who teased you unmercifully growing up, you may come done hard on someone who lampoons someone else in the group. If the person who is the object of the needling takes it gracefully, you may be defending a ghost, causing a chill wind to blow across the room when none was needed nor intended.

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