As a consultant, I often go to organizations and provide advice and counsel to leaders at varying levels in the organization. For a good number of clients, that advice is at the management level and higher, and I don’t have regular communication with non-supervisory employees. So while visiting a client site a few days ago, I was in the break room getting something to drink, and happened to strike up a conversation with an [non-supervisory] employee about the political primary. We held a pretty robust conversation for a few minutes, and near the end, he looked at me and said, “Who ARE you”? It caught me off guard, and frankly I found it quite amusing. But in thinking back about the conversation, I realized that this is a question that people struggle with all of the time. So it got me thinking about human communication, and what we are REALLY saying when we communicate.
Communication is a method of transferring information from one person to another. The ability to verbally communicate separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Communication is made up of basically two components: verbal and nonverbal cues.
Verbal Vs. Nonverbal Communication Cues
Verbal cues are pretty simple to understand. They are the words we choose and the tone in which we use them. About 38% of our communication is our tone and only about 7% is the words we choose.
Nonverbal cues make up the other 55% of our communication. It’s the single largest area. Facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, smiling, posture, and hand placement are some of the most common things we hear about. Dr. Paul Ekman, a retired professor of Psychology from the University of California at San Diego, has conducted extensive research in the areas of emotion and facial expressions throughout his career. Known as the “best human lie detector”, he found that the human face is capable of making over 10,000 different expressions, and only 3,000 are relevant to emotion.
So what makes you approachable?
At first glance, it’s primarily non-verbal cues. Smiles and eye contact are a couple of simple nonverbal cues. But what about more subtle cues? Think about these:
- In the U.S., personal space is considered to be a circle of about 3 feet around you. What does it feel like when someone enters your personal space? For most people, unless you are intimate with the person who is “invading” your space, this gesture is considered to be intrusive and is usually met with an abrupt step back.
- Do you suffer from “focus face” (you are thinking, but people think you are grumpy)? And how do you know? Have you ever looked at your expression in the mirror after you get a reaction that doesn’t seem to be consistent with what you were going for?
- Are your arms crossed when you are listening? For most people, this is an indication of being closed off. And a lack of eye contact goes along with that.
The key to being approachable is to know yourself. As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Take it from him…he was a pretty smart guy!