How to overcome weakness in non-verbal communication
January 13, 2017 5:21 AM   Subscribe

I’m bad at picking up on non-verbal, non-literal communication, and my own non-verbal expression isn’t accurate either. I’d like to stop causing problems due to these weaknesses, either by improving them or by compensating for my lack of ability.

These weaknesses are mostly (but not exclusively) apparent in the workplace. A recent project highlighted how my shortcomings in these areas really aren’t fair to the people I work with, and they’re threatening my preferred work-life, where good relationships with peers and clients are essential. I need help with both receptive and expressive non-verbal/non-literal communication:
- If people don’t explicitly tell me how they’re feeling -- e.g., that they’re unhappy with something -- I don’t pick up well on body language, facial expressions, tone, or hints and allusions, so I may fail to adjust accordingly, and cause upset.
- My own non-verbal communication isn’t accurate. If I have something negative to say, I say it explicitly, but since that’s not what people expect, they’re interpreting non-verbal signals that I don’t even know I’m sending, and that don’t match what I mean. I’ve been told that I can come off as frustrated, bored, or judgemental when I’m not, or maybe when I am but the cause isn’t the person in front of me.

I’m in my 40’s, married, generally successful. I’ve been in therapy in the past, and when discussing this and other personal characteristics, my therapist conjectured that some of my differences were likely neurologically rooted in some way. I looked into autism on my own once and didn’t think it fit, and I’ve never pursued any other kind of diagnosis, but my weakness in these areas isn’t a failure to pay attention or a lack of caring.

I’d love to improve in these areas, or, if they’re as intractable as they feel, to find workarounds for them. So far, my ideas for workarounds are to tell people about these weaknesses, and to ask them more often how they feel our work together is going. What other suggestions or resources might help?
posted by daisyace to Human Relations (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you have a tv show that you like and follow regularly, try reading recaps and reviews of that show for a while. I did this right out of college--not as a therapy exercise but for fun--and it turned out to be really helpful, because reviewers and recappers talk about the characters emotions fairly frequently. And that gives you a guide to the body language you're missing, because you will be able to remember the scene they're talking about, and--if you're like me--you will have various moments of, "Oh! Dean was unhappy in that scene. That's what that facial expression was!" (I happened to be following Supernatural at the time). After a while, some expressions start to make more sense.

In terms of giving other people feedback, you say here that you give negative feedback explicitly and you have noticed that this makes people uncomfortable. So one easy-seeming thing to work on would be: stop being quite so blunt when you give negative feedback. If you soften your tone a bit, then your body language won't play as big a role, I think, and the words coming out of your mouth are easier to modify than how you hold yourself, etc. At least, in my experience.
posted by colfax at 5:38 AM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks -- I barely watch TV, but it's a good suggestion that wouldn't have occurred to me. Your second point makes me realize I conveyed the part about my own expression unclearly (ha! Even when it's ALL verbal, here). It's not that people are uncomfortable when I do give verbal negative feedback. I think I'm usually good at doing that. It's that if I'm not saying something's wrong, nothing's wrong... but since other people don't work that way, they're reading my non-verbal signals then anyway, and concluding that I'm frustrated, bored, judgmental, etc.

I also probably should have included that I'm very Ask, and so is my cultural upbringing (Jewish New Yorker), and it's Guess that's throwing me -- both trying to sense what others aren't saying explicitly and their sense that there are negative things that I'm not saying explicitly (when really, if there were, I'd be saying them).
posted by daisyace at 5:54 AM on January 13, 2017

Someplace to practice where the stakes are low/failure is humorous, like a one-time improv class?
posted by BibiRose at 6:22 AM on January 13, 2017

Yeah, improv is good for this, especially of the connected, organic style (as opposed to game focused).

But in general the way we learn anything is by trying it, making mistakes and changing our approach. I would suggest you try and verbalise your readings of other people's emotions (e.g. "you look very unhappy") and your own emotions more. That way you can get explicit feedback on whether your own interpretation is correct.

The other half is bringing focus on the other person more and less on the ideas at hand. Eye contact is also very important. The eyes are the windows to the soul and all. Try noticing how often you make eye contact, it may be very little. Silently repeating what they just said in your head, before speaking, is also a nice way to bring focus on the other person.

Of course all of the above are probably best tried in a social setting first where you're less worried about the damage if you "say the wrong thing." It's definitely worth talking about this with a friend you trust.
posted by Erberus at 6:29 AM on January 13, 2017

I do not have exactly the same issues you describe but I am a northeast corridor Asker living in the very Guess south, and I've been told at work that what I think is straightforward can land as critical. I am in general a much better writer than I am a speaker so I've applied that to this issue in two ways: I default to email or notes in our project management software when it makes sense; and in meetings I save my feedback to the end, writing it down as it comes up instead of saying it, and editing it throughout the meeting. That way I don't appear bored (I'm taking notes!) and my response is more thought out when I share it.

If I wasn't such a hardcore introvert I would sign up for Toastmasters - even though I haven't done it, I highly recommend it. People I know who have done it for a while have gained a lot of interpersonal skills from it.
posted by headnsouth at 6:30 AM on January 13, 2017

I'm horrible at "natural" non-verbal communication, in much the way you are--my body and face don't signal what I'm feeling and my tone overly level. People have occasionally asked, for example, why I was so pissed off at a meeting that I was quite happy about.

I'm sure you know the "classic" negative body positions, like arms crossed, leaning back, looking elsewhere, etc. I do make a point of avoiding these when not speaking in a meeting, leaning forward a bit, turning my head to look at and stay focused on speakers, etc. That's relatively easy, compared to managing gestures and facial expressions when speaking myself.

I also add more verbal hints as to what I'm feeling--for example, if I'm going to ask something that could be perceived as negative ("What factors made this later than scheduled?") I try to remember to start with a signal that I'm not angry ("Thanks for the update, it sounds like a lot of good work.") This all seems to help at least a bit.
posted by mark k at 7:54 AM on January 13, 2017

Toastmasters would assist in some of your areas of concern. The one I attended was very challenging and helpful at the same time. The curriculums are focused on different types of delivery i.e., technical presentations, storytelling, interpersonal communication, etc. The great thing is getting immediate detailed feedback on your body language and presentations. You are assigned an "mentor" to guide you through your tracks.

A point with one-on-one conversations, when you may be unclear on what someone said or meant (zero body language) is to reply back in a question for clarification. For example, "what I am hearing you say is part X needs to be completed because of part Y. Is this what you meant?"
posted by mountainblue at 8:03 AM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

- This is a very complex skill and set of behaviors that have to happen at the same time as the other things you are doing. That's very difficult. Trying to do this on not enough sleep would be like trying to _learn to_ fly a plane on not enough sleep. Take care of yourself.

- You are always in one emotional state or another. There is no "none". Emotional states are, in a way, the expression of a particular ratio of chemicals. The chemicals are always present, they are always in one ratio or another, and the ratio is always changing. Which leads to:

- If you are "not unhappy", then what are you feeling?

- Other people are constantly picking up on cues about your emotional state. If you're not sending signs that you like them, or that you are enjoying yourself, they will conclude (reasonably) that you are suppressing signals that you are unhappy or that you don't like them -- this suppression of signals is itself a generally accepted signal of tension or enmity.

- One thing that might help is practicing extreme emotional expressions, alone or in an improv or acting class, so that toned-down ones seem less extreme to you. This is like stretching a muscle, but for your mind -- although literal facial and other muscles could be involved too.

- Another thing that might help: practice communicating entirely non-verbally. This can be very frustrating, so set up situations in which your basic needs are taken care of. If you do it with your wife, maybe while you're out on a fun excursion where you will have preferences (for example, taking a tour of a garden, where you choose which direction to walk), it could be enjoyable.

- I enjoy watching videos with the sound turned off -- but the actors have to be expressive with each other. Brooklyn Nine-Nine might be good for this, especially since you're talking about workplace issues.
posted by amtho at 8:24 AM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also get similar feedback and sometimes try to narrate what I'm doing... Like if I am thinking, I roll my eyes to the side and go off into INTP land and think. People interpret this as me rolling my eyes at THEM or me being angry. I will say, "Give me a second, I have to work that out, I'm thinking about our options," or "I'm not mad, just trying to figure this out." I also ask friends to red-flag anything that might seem 'off' at work. I will just run stuff by coworkers I trust and ask for feedback. "X seems upset I said that. Was that out of line?" or "Should I have offered to shake hands with the new person?" etc.
posted by ShadePlant at 10:34 AM on January 13, 2017

This is difficult for me too. One way I compensate is by smiling a lot, to avoid conveying unhappiness unintentionally. Basically if I'm around other people and I want to appear neutral to pleasant, I try to keep my "resting" face as a smile.
posted by metasarah at 1:04 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you for these really helpful replies! The Toastmasters idea is the first one I'm looking into -- I've always heard good things about it, but thought it was only for presentation skills. I'm also going to try to purposely say or signal when things are fine or good more often -- I tend to let that go unsaid more than I should. I also appreciate the suggestions to look at people's eyes more, to practice picking up signals and checking what I think they mean, and to learn from TV/video viewing or from acting/improv -- all valuable ideas.

amtho, your insight about an absence of emotional signals being read as suppressed negative emotions particularly resonates with me. I know I tend to be too much up in my head and disconnected from my emotions. So, it's an important reminder that in addition to focusing on developing my nonverbal communication itself, continuing to work on those fundamentals would also help. I also appreciate your reassurance that this stuff can be legitimately hard!
posted by daisyace at 8:39 AM on January 14, 2017

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