When Words And Actions Don’t Match

A while ago, I started work with a top-level executive who wanted to do a bit of self-development.

I met him at his offices and, as I always do, made a note in my file of my very first impression of him. (I then refer back to and share this insight with clients when we get to the part where we consider how others view their personal brand.) What I’d jotted down was:

Brusque in his manner, but convivial in his words.

How the impression was formed

What I meant by that was, if I’d formed my first impression solely on his tone of voice, facial expression and body language, ‘brusque’ was the word to describe it. He was curt, had a slight scowl and sat with his feet pointing towards the door (usually a signal that someone wants to leave the room). Based on that, I felt he didn’t like me one jot.

But when I put those clues to one side and listened to what he was saying – showing an interest in me, checking I had everything I needed, even saying how much he was enjoying our discussion – the impression was of someone much more convivial.

Where’s the primary source of meaning?

He was, I realised, one of those minority of people whose words are the primary source of meaning in their communication. (As opposed to the majority of us who convey our meaning to a much greater extent through our tone of voice and body language – more of which you can read about in this previous post.)

The first time I’d become conscious of this happening was with a journalist I’d known years ago, who once or twice a year I’d take out to lunch. (Eating good food on someone else’s dime being one upside of the job.) Although she looked and sounded like she’d prefer to be anywhere on earth than sitting opposite me, when I listed to her words I heard how much she’d been looking forward to our lunch and how it was a highlight of her week.

At first, I found it hard to trust what I was hearing, because the message coming from her tone and body language was so at odds with the sentences coming out of her mouth. But once I re-configured my brain to override what I was seeing and focus solely on the words I was hearing, I believed her.

Check for the true message

If you, like my client and that journalist, are someone whose meaning comes primarily from their words, it’s worth thinking about how best to get people to re-configure their brains to hear what you want them hearing. (Convivial, not brusque.)

Part of the answer lies in trying to better match your words with your tone and body language (something my client and I worked on) by being conscious of the clues and making alterations.

And part lies in educating others that your words and actions don’t always match, so to focus on the former, not the latter. Something as simple as, “I’ve been told I don’t always communicate what I’m saying through what people are seeing,” would work.

Or if you’re someone whose meaning comes in the more traditional way, be aware when you meet someone and they create a negative impression. Is it because they actually are a complete twonk, in words, tone and body language? Or is it because they’re in that minority who communicate with a mismatch? In which case, focus on the words.

How well do your words, body language and tone gel to communicate your message? Or are you someone who inadvertently delivers a mismatch? And if so, what do you do about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts with a comment below. Thank you!

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