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What you see might not be what you get. How non-verbal communication can be misleading…..

There’s a moment in the excellent BBC three-part documentary The Space Shuttle that Fell to Earth (episode two, 55 minutes in) when the NASA flight director and his team begin to sense that something has gone catastrophically wrong. Screens in the control room are going blank; sensors are failing; contact with Columbia has been lost. We witness their dawning realisation that the shuttle has most likely broken up on the way to its landing location and that the seven astronauts – their colleagues, have been killed. The footage was live and the events were unfolding in real time. And these are real people, not actors.

What struck me was the mismatch between what must have been going on in their hearts and minds, and their demeanour. Yes, they were tense and alert and focused but they were also calm and controlled. If you were to turn the volume down and watch their expressions and body language, I doubt you’d guess that disaster was unfolding around them. Of course, these people would have been in those roles partly because of their ability to cope with stress. Even so, the mismatch is marked.

It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers in which he explores how hard it often is to judge human beings based on their behaviour, particularly people we don’t know. He references history, psychology and some infamous legal cases (Amanda Knox) to illustrate how sometimes tragic misunderstandings can occur when people don’t behave as we expect them to or as we ourselves behave.

It’s an issue which often comes up in my training room in the context of online communication. Many people see a Teams gallery of flat, bored-looking faces and misinterpret this as disinterest in or hostility to the content. That can lead the speaker to panic and lose confidence; to increase their pace, fast forward over material or veer off-piste. They’re attempting to provoke a more reassuring non-verbal response; a facial expression which they recognise as attentive or engaged.

There are two problems here. One – online participants experience less human connection with the speaker. There is a physical and psychological distance which means we feel (in many cases unconsciously) less obliged to demonstrate to the speaker that we’re enjoying their content. After all, they aren’t looking directly or exclusively at us, as would happen in a real-world context.

Two – people have very different types of concentrating face. Some are naturally active-listeners, others have a neutral or serious or even haughty listening demeanour.

I’ve had personal experience of this: trainees who looked bored to tears all through the session but then gave glowing feedback. Plus, I live with two people who both have RBFs.

And sometimes there might be cultural factors at play. Respectful behaviour in one culture might look and sound like disinterest to another. Erin Mayer’s The Culture Code is very good on this topic.

So, while it’s obviously important to be responsive to our audiences, to be able to adapt to them and to any changing situation, if required, we must also be wary of misconstruing what we see in a Zoom room.

If we’ve prepared well, if we know we have content which is genuinely of value to them, we shouldn’t take fright at a flat face because the chances are, we’re making the wrong judgment.

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