Your boss is giving advice about dealing with representatives of another company. ‘I want to finesse them on this deal,’ he says. But as he speaks, he pounds his fist on the desk. You hear what the manager says, but you also see his aggressive gesture. You leave the meeting confused about what the manager really wants you to do.
When thoughts and words are in tune (when a person believes what they are saying), you see it corroborated in their body language. Their gestures and expressions are in alignment with what is being said. When you see incongruence, where gestures contradict words – a side-to-side headshake while saying ‘yes’ or a person frowning and staring at the ground while telling you they are happy – it is almost always a sign of inner conflict between what someone is stating and how they are really feeling.
I noticed this conflict in Sheila, an executive I was coaching. Sheila appeared prepared and focused as she listed why she should delegate more responsibility to her staff. But every time she expressed these opinions she also, almost imperceptibly, shuddered. While Sheila’s words declared her intention of empowering employees, the quick, involuntary shudder was saying loud and clear, ‘I don’t want to do this!’
Incongruence is processed in our brains in ways that can be scientifically measured by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. EEGs measure ‘event-related potentials’ – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys, dubbed N400, occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave pattern that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language. So, in a very real way, when someone’s words say one thing and his or her gestures indicate another, we struggle to make sense out of what just occurred.
Here’s an exercise that I advise practicing outside your place of work: Whenever someone asks you a question that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (for example, ‘Would you like fries with that?’), answer in the affirmative while subtly shaking your head from side to side. Then watch how others react to the mixed signals you are sending.
Remember: Look for body language congruence. It’s a sign that the person you are dealing with is genuinely committed to the statements being made. And when you notice incongruence (and you will be more aware of it now that you realize its importance), understand that you are receiving conflicting messages and ask for clarification.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.
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