Successful people are great communicators who recognize that conversations are part of an evolving social process. They aren’t just skilled listeners; they’re attuned to subtle social signals that are more revealing than words alone — and they use them to their advantage.
We’re more connected than ever before. The ability to reach out and communicate with people around the globe has never been more accessible. But are we paying attention to key signals that improve our understanding?
Fifty years of research reveals that words play only a small role in conveying meaning. Facial and other nonverbal expressions are larger contributors. And over the last decade, scientists have found that social signals are a significant, yet largely unexplored, communication channel.
Social communication channels profoundly influence our major decisions, even though we’re usually unaware of them. These signals are produced unconsciously, so they’re supremely honest. As Alex Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab explains in his book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:
Honest Signals comes from a new and emerging science, called network science, that tries to understand people in the context of their social networks rather than viewing them as isolated individuals.
Measuring Social Signals
We unconsciously communicate with one another. Even before we utter a word, we intuit how others feel.
Researchers are now using sensing technology (sociometers) to detect key signaling behaviors — including activity levels, mimicry, synchrony, pace and physical distance — in face-to-face conversations.
Pentland and his MIT colleagues developed the sociometer, which was further perfected by Ben Waber and fellow MIT alumni who founded Sociometric Solutions. The device is worn around the neck like an ID badge, and it captures tone of voice, activity level and location. While it does not record actual words, it can detect and/or measure:
We may not perceive these social signals unless we’re looking for them. When we do become aware of them, they provide a very effective window into people’s intentions, goals and values. Using the sociometer, scientists can accurately predict the outcomes of social situations, job interviews and even salary negotiations.
Four Key Social Signals
Pentland’s research reveals four key honest signals that can be effectively measured: influence, mimicry, activity and consistency.
How can we detect how much influence we’re having in a conversation? Answering this question can help us negotiate a salary, make a sales pitch or score a promotion.
Controlling the pace of a conversation allows us to influence its outcome. We can speed or slow our speech, varying the pace by milliseconds. We can create or eliminate gaps in conversation. These tiny time variations are perceived by others’ conscious minds only indirectly (as intuitions). Our conversation partners can tell that we’re insistent, highly attentive and invested in directing the flow of conversation.
Can you remember a time when you were called on the carpet by an angry supervisor? The boss likely raised his voice, rapidly fired questions at you and demanded explanations, yet cut you off before you could finish speaking. You felt pushed and pinned down by the barrage of words. The boss, clearly dominating the interaction, used these “verbal pushing” techniques to control — and influence the outcome of — the conversation.
We use our influence to assess others’ attitudes and interest level. In one study of 46 salary negotiations, researchers found that those who controlled conversation patterns were perceived as the influential parties.
We mirror our conversation partners automatically and unconsciously. The mirror neurons in our brains hardwire us to copy smiles, interjections, head nodding, and vocal timing and pitch. Some of us mimic more than others. Salespeople are often trained to use mimicry as a tactic, but customers can usually tell when this wholly natural tendency is exaggerated or faked.
Mirroring behaviors increase the degree to which conversational partners like and trust each other. Unconscious and authentic mimicry is a sign of empathy that can actually improve negotiation results by 20 to 30 percent. No other factor in financial interactions proves to be as effective.
The amount of energy we invest in a conversation signals our interest and attention. Excitement is therefore an honest signal. Even when we try to be smooth and subdued, outward signs of nervous activity will emerge. We fidget, talk quickly and gesture when we’re sincerely interested in a topic and the conversation’s potential outcome.
When two people are exploring the possibility of a relationship, they signal interest in each other with rising activity levels. When observing speed-daters, social scientists can accurately predict which women will provide their phone numbers, based solely on activity levels during these brief encounters. The same applies to other social interactions and business networking.
Whenever two people gesture and talk energetically, the odds are very good that they’ll trade contact information to further their relationship. Conversation partners seem to know this intuitively and can sense when to follow up.
How can we apply this in business? If you’ve ever had a conversation that lacked energy, you know there’s a problem. Solve it by finding a topic that interests the other person. Ask questions that give you insights into what your conversation partner values. You’ll further the relationship when you raise your partner’s activity level.
Consistency refers to the variability of your speech and movements during a conversation.
When you’re focused, your speech and movements are smooth and regular. When you experience multiple simultaneous thoughts or emotions, your speech becomes jerky, unevenly accented and paced. Consistency is a measure of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others.
Better Leadership Communication
Successful people and effective leaders do more than just listen. They recognize that observing patterns of unconscious social signaling offers a window into a group’s dynamics. They can detect when a group is moving toward problems like groupthink or polarization.
Language and arguments matter, of course, but sometimes they matter surprisingly little. We’re not as rational as we’d like to believe. If you’re not reading the social signals, you may be missing out on important information.
Always remember that communication is socially situated. The more we recognize that discussions are not limited to words and part of a larger social dialogue, the more successfully we’ll work together.
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