What Are You Saying With Your Eyes?

Lance Communication, Leadership, People Leave a Comment

Of all the jury trials I conducted over my career as a prosecutor, there is one loss that stands out above the rest in my mind. In fact, the last time I interviewed for a job, the lesson I learned from this failure was my easy response to the standard inquiry:

  • THEM: “What is a weakness of yours?”
  • ME: “I don’t handle frustration very well.”
  • THEM: “How so? Tell us about a time that happened.”
  • ME: “I lost a trial once because I was frustrated about the conduct of the defense attorney. I let it show on my face. The jury told the judge after that they thought my visible facial expressions of frustration were funny at first. But, after awhile, I just looked like an ass — so much so that the way I returned the other attorney’s pen to her after she left it at the podium during closing arguments was viewed as dismissive bordering on contemptuous. I let myself become part of the story, and became the distraction that led to the jury throwing up their hands and saying ‘who knows? who cares?’. When the standard of proof is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ a reaction like that often leads to a failed prosecution.”

It was a tough way to learn a lesson about the power of unwitting expressions of non-verbal communication, for sure. But, the lessons best remembered are almost always the ones toughest learned. Not to say I’m still not working on improving my passive non-verbal facial messaging — there’s still a LOT of room for improvement.

Armed with the depth of insight that only real world failure can provide, I often find myself taking note of the body language on display in group settings, particularly when there is a hierarchy of a Leader and Followers and the subject is one of contention. I can easily recall a particular meeting, with a dozen or so people lining the prototypical conference room table. The meeting was one in which the lowest members of the Org Chart Totem Pole had the unpleasant task of delivering unfavorable feedback about an initiative for which the HiPPO was responsible.

As an interested but uninvolved onlooker, I was free to observe the dynamics at work, and they were truly fascinating. What captured my attention the most, however, was the display of the Leader In The Room: a combination of little active participation and lots of thinly-veiled facial expressions in response to the feedback being offered up by those down the org chart. It wasn’t Boredom or Disinterest this Leader was exhibiting; this person was clearly putting effort into listening to the concerns of the others in the room. What showed repeatedly throughout the meeting, however, was a likely unconscious expression of a Morale and Trust Killer: Dismissiveness, bordering on Contempt.

I’m sure this Leader wasn’t aware of this, and wouldn’t have intended it if aware. (If that isn’t the case, there are much bigger issues than communication at work.) Yet, it is the slippery nature of communication in general and non-verbal body language in particular that the effectiveness of Communication isn’t defined by Good Intentions or lack of Bad Intentions — it is how messages are Received, Interpreted, and Understood that counts.

I never intended to express Dismissive Contempt for my courtroom adversary many years ago … yet that’s how my audience read my face, and they reacted accordingly. So, too, the Leader in this meeting likely would be mortified to know Dismissive Contempt was written all over the Leader’s face. In the end, however, that simply doesn’t matter. Leading is about getting results through the efforts of others, and what they take from the billboard that is your non-verbal expressions and body language trumps what you meant or didn’t mean inside.

The key to solving this results-killing problem is simple but not easy: Mindfulness as a filter for both verbal and non-verbal communication. When other people are watching and taking cues from you as the Leader, it isn’t enough to think carefully about what you are saying; you have to force yourself to also pay attention to what your body and face are saying when your mouth is still and your brain thinks it is simply in passive listening mode. While the oft-repeated adage that “communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal” is a distorted take on a couple of tiny studies, the gist is still quite true: the greater weight of communication lies beyond the words coming out of your mouth. If your non-verbal cues account for the majority of messaging to your audience when you are speaking, how much more important are they when you are saying nothing?

So: What ARE your eyes saying??