Have you ever watched a leader walk into a room and see the interpersonal dynamics change around them? The flow of the chatter changes. The topics change. And people start to look to the leader for approval. The conversation may even shift to the point that the leader becomes responsible for determining turn taking and who gets to talk next. The charismatic behaviors of the leader subtly influence their surroundings. It’s not something the leader tries to do; it just happens. There is an unconscious shift in the communication patterns.
Alex Pentland from MIT refers to these patterns as honest signals in his book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World. They are the nonverbal cues that are so deeply embedded that we have extreme difficulty faking them. He and his associates spent years studying these signals and developed the technology to measure them. As coaches, an awareness of our client’s unconscious communication can be fruitful coaching territority.
First, as coaches, we can pay more attention to honest signals. We can’t really cheat with our nonverbal signals. In fact, Pentland conducted a number of experiments where people tried to change and they were generally failures. Think of it this way. You are walking with a friend and having a very interesting conversation. Suddenly, your friend starts skipping while talking. It looks like fun to you so you try skipping and talking, too. Doesn’t work. You are thinking so hard about skipping that that you can’t talk straight. As coaches, we have the opportunity to become conscious of the honest signals from our clients. Start noticing when there is an extra-long pause or maybe a sigh just before they say, “It’s been an adventurous week.”
Second, we can support our clients as they improve their self-monitoring. Much of my coaching with executives centers on their awareness of how they appear to others. I ask them to think about the honest signals that they are providing to others. As that awareness grows, the clients also grow in their ability to adapt their activities.
Third, we can support our clients as they learn new honest signals. Have you ever noticed how sales people always are nodding? It’s an honest signal. And it’s learned. Alex Pentland says that we can learn new honest signals by role playing. In one sense, we do that a lot as coaches. We ask our clients to try on new behaviors and do different things. I use the DiSC profile with most of my clients. Imagine the conversation where I am coaching a “D” style who likes to address issues quickly, directly, and decisively and I ask him how he might approach the situation as an “S” who wants everyone comfortable with their surroundings and changing policies. Once we understand the role, we can honestly play it.
If you have an opportunity to read Pentland’s book, I recommend it. Most treatments of nonverbal communication treat it as something that can be easily dissected and manipulated. David Pentland recognizes the subtleties of our unconscious behaviors and the resultant honesty in our communication. As coaches, we also have an opportunity to work on our honest signals.