Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Several decades later, Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, proved Wittgenstein right by combining the results of two of his studies from the late 1960s, and concluding that only 7 per cent of communication is made up of words – 38 per cent is tone of voice, and the other 55 per cent is body language.
While Mehrabian qualifies that these statistics are not applicable to every situation, the importance of body language – also known as kinesics – and voice in communication, particularly in business, has become increasingly apparent, and thousands of companies are investing in teaching their employees the art of communicating without words.
“My typical client is someone moving up to senior management level, who suddenly finds they have to communicate with a much wider range of people,” says opera singer-turned-communications trainer at Executive Voice Susan Heaton-Wright. “I teach them the skills to be able to do this with confidence.”
HR professionals in particular rely on clear and compelling communication to get results and influence others. So how can you use what we know about verbal and non-verbal communication in your working life?
In difficult one-to-one conversations
As the department most likely to have to conduct a difficult conversation with an employee, it makes sense that HR professionals know how best to present themselves to avoid making an already difficult situation worse. “When having tricky conversations, the ultimate aim is for that person to still trust you when they leave the room,” says Harriet Heneghan, executive coach at Black Isle Group.
Showing emotional intelligence indicates that you understand and empathise. “Pause regularly to allow them to take stock, and ensure that you maintain eye contact during the pause,” says Heneghan. “You’re non-verbally asking them ‘can I go on?’ and showing that you’re listening to them.”
In such sensitive circumstances, what you do with your body also says a lot. “Stay professional and don’t look disengaged, even if the other person gets angry or upset,” advises Heaton-Wright. “I use the ‘sitting diva’ analogy – this means both your feet are on the ground, your chest is open and your upper body is upright, rather than leaning back in your chair. This shows you’re engaged and you’re empathising, and reduces the chances of the situation becoming confrontational.”
Vocally, maintaining a lower pitch – for women as well as men – helps you keep control. “If you are stressed, worried, anxious or angry, your voice naturally gets higher,” says Heaton-Wright. “Counter that by concentrating on speaking in a lower register – this will help create the impression that you’re managing the situation, even if you don’t feel like you are.”
How do you communicate effectively when you have neither voice nor body language at your disposal? More than 200 billion emails are sent every day around the world, so it’s a medium that deserves to be used effectively. Experts highlight the importance of directness and brevity in communicating effectively via email. “The first rules of writing an email are to be clear and make it short, or it simply won’t be read,” says Heaton-Wright. “Everyone is busy, so you need to avoid unnecessary niceties and get to the point quickly.”
Sarah Archer, HR manager-turned-comedian and speaking coach at Lemon Squeeze, also advocates remembering that you – and the recipients of your email – are humans. “It might be a typed message instead of a face-to-face discussion, but you can still keep it conversational,” she says. “It shouldn’t be full of big words and corporate language. And never type in all capitals – you’re not shouting.”