I find I take far more cues from what I see rather than what I hear. Long ago, a coach asked me why my communication “style” would change mid-flight and I explained. When I would see scrunchy faces, raised eyebrows, lip biting or any kind of facial cue I would immediately jump to “I’m doing or saying something wrong”. The coach encouraged me to ask rather than assume. I know…it’s a crazy idea. Honestly, it did seem a little crazy though because the chance was someone would feel as though they were being called out. It could result in a very uncomfortable situation for that person and for me. All of that said, we talked about it some more and I said I would give it a try. I did and have continued to experiment. Here’s what I have learned to do (so far):
- Ask for permission. I let people know I have a tendency to read facial expressions. Generally I do this by calling out the fact my own face reflects what I’m thinking and I may ask people questions based on what I’m seeing rather than what I’m hearing. I ask if it’s OK for me to do this as well as say it’s perfectly acceptable to tell me it’s not.
- Determine if it’s appropriate. When I do see something that makes me want to ask a question or learn more, I think (quickly) if it’s appropriate or not. For example, if it looks like something isn’t jiving, asking a question is a good thing. Same thing if it looks like someone doesn’t agree. Both situations can benefit the larger group with learning or some good discussion and sharing different points of view. Plus, more than once, I have learned something very, very valuable to apply to the future. If, on the other hand, someone looks hurt or ticked, I wait and speak to the person individually.
- Ask with an open mind, heart and sincerity. It kind of goes like this: “Bob, I’m seeing a scrunchy face. I just want to check to see if there’s something you want dig into some more or if I’m not saying something very well.”
- Allow for an escape route. The reason I ask a close-ended question is so the person can easily say no and I can easily get back to it. Also, I ask the question in such a way as whatever is happening is MINE.
- Thank the person. I try, really hard, to thank the person for letting me “pick” on them as well for helping make the conversation. training or whatever richer.
This “tool” has been great to get training classes of people who don’t know each other well to open up some more and generate some energy. It’s also good with teams who are forming or teams who are having trouble communicating. I’ve also noticed people in classes and teams will start to do this with each other. And, they will do it right back to me. Like I said, what I think is on my face and people will call me out when I have a scrunchy face too.
I’m so grateful to the coach who picked up on this tendency of mine and guided me on how to leverage it over ignoring it. So much communication happens that can’t be heard. I mean, how often do we have to filter what we say out of fear of some unintended ramification? Granted it’s a pretty vulnerable place to be and, if you try this, remember you are putting them there. Also, if you read this and realize you don’t pay much attention to what you see and rely much more on what you hear, try to observe the team when you’re not in front of them by sticking your headphones in, listening to some music and just watching them. Jot down what you’re thinking, pull the headphones out and validate with your ears what you heard with your eyes.