NLP and non-verbal communication

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Matching body language

On our NLP courses we explore the power of non-verbal communication in practical, hands-on training exercises.

In these exercises people experiment with matching and then mis-matching their non-verbal behaviour.

And the effect never ceases to amaze me.

It goes like this:

Martin and John decide who is the ‘matcher’ and then they have a chat about something of interest to them.

John, who is the matcher, subtly matches or emulates Martin’s non-verbal behaviour for the first couple of minutes. He matches Martin’s eye contact pattern, how they use their voice and their overall posture.

Then John deliberately and very obviously mis-matches Martin’s behaviour. He breaks eye contact and begins looking about the room, or he speaks in a very different voice pattern to Martin, or he makes some dramatic shift in posture – all the while carrying on the conversation in exactly the same way.

There are no surprises

Remember, there are no surprises. Each person knows exactly what is happening and what will happen.

Yet when the person in the ‘Martin’ role does the mis-matching there is invariably a noticeable change in the ‘John’ person’s behaviour. They will generally falter in their conversation, attempt to regain eye contact, be unable to concentrate on what is being said or will simply stop talking. Even though they are fully aware of what is going on.

What I find continually amazing, even though I have been using the exercise for decades, is that the Martin-person’s reaction is in no way neutralised by the fact that they KNOW it is just a set up exercise!

In discussing it afterwards people report that when they were first on the receiving end of the mis-matching behaviour they felt insulted by the mis-matcher, or felt shocked, or snubbed or felt as if the other person had lost interest – even though they knew it was all simply an exercise!

The power of non-verbal communication

Rationally they know that it’s just an exercise and that the mis-matcher is not losing interest in them nor are they being deliberately insulting. But emotionally  they respond as if this is, indeed, the mis-matcher’s intention!

Such is the power of non-verbal behaviour!

The Mehrabian 7% Myth

The much-quoted ‘holy grail’ of communication skills’ trainings is that our non-verbal behaviour accounts for 93% of the impact of our message.

This is based on research done in 1967 by Albert Mehrabian and is, at the very least, a highly questionable ‘fact’ that has been around for nearly 50 years.

According to this theory what you actually say accounts for a mere 7% of your impact when communicating face to face with someone. The formula is as follows:

55% of your impact is the result on how you appear

38% results from how you sound

7% results from what you say!

So you can look great, smile a lot, utter gobbledegook in a pleasing and profound manner – and 93% of your message gets across…

The dubious formula is quoted, without question, in many books and a majority or communication skills’ training programmes.

That said, it is beyond question that our non-verbal behaviour is very powerful indeed – because it is to this non-verbal aspect of our communication that people most immediately and most emotionally respond.

Intuitions and the Non-verbals

No-one has yet come up with a comprehensive answer to what exactly is intuition. But it certainly includes the unconscious process of picking up and processing non-verbal information.

This is happening all the time. Every shift in a person’s emotions is transmitted to the world through their non-verbals – their body and voice.

When you feel a little apprehensive, or relaxed, or irritated, or attracted there are resulting electrical and chemical changes throughout your body. These affect blood flow and muscle tension.

Unconscious ‘Leakage’

As a result of this there will be visible or audible alterations

  • in your eye, arm and leg movements,
  • in the muscle tonus of your face and body,
  • in your posture,
  • in how you breathe,
  • in the pulse in your neck,
  • in the colour of your skin,
  • in the size of your lips,
  • in the contraction and dilation of your pupils,
  • and in the sound and rate of your speech.

You may think you are doing a great job at hiding your feelings but you are only hiding the gross and obvious signals.

There is still an unconscious ‘leakage’ and this is usualy picked up unconsciously by the other person. (which simply means they are registering it without being aware of doing so).

Sooner or later (and this often occurs after the encounter is over) this information that they have unconsciously picked up gets through to their conscious attention as a feeling about you – as an ‘intuition’.

Why it can be hard to lie!

This is why it is actually very difficult to be a good liar or con-artist. Our  non-verbals will usually let us down. Most of us have experienced the situation where you meet someone and have a satisfactory conversation with them. But afterwards you have an uneasy feeling about them.

Typically you’ll say something like “I don’t know… I can’t quite put my finger on it… but I don’t feel right about that person.”

Ignore this at your peril!

We ignore our ability to pick up non-verbal messages at our peril. Doing so is the cause of many a teenage broken heart (and quite a few twenty-, forty- and sixty-year-old broken hearts, too.)

You meet someone, feel strongly attracted to them, and then begin dating them. You energetically and actively ignore your intuition that they’re not right for you or are not to be trusted. And, sure enough, your intuition proves right in the end. And you’re left to rue the day your passion over-ran your intuition.

Non-Verbal Experts

Successful business-people tend to not only have a highly developed intuitive antenna about people but to also pay respectful attention to it. Successful sales-people and competitive sports-people, too.

But the true artists in this game have to be – mothers!

With your mother lying is pointless. At least when you’re face-to-face with her. You have a passing chance on the telephone because she’s only got the voice to go on. But it’s not easy to convincingly lie to your mother face-to-face.

She has been getting to know your non-verbal since many months before you were even born!

NLP & Non-Verbal Communication

An in-depth NLP Course will seek to ensure that you acquire a highly developed ability to recognise and respond to this very subtle form of communication. This is because it is one of the foundation skills on which so much of the NLP ‘magic’ depends. Applying NLP to communicate skilfully, or to develop/p really excellent relationships, or do coach someone in personal development or to use most of the well-known NLP techniques requires that you have an excellent ability to recognise non-verbal communication.

How to begin?

  1. Pick one area and stick with it for a week or two – then move on to another one. Perhaps make the next few weeks your “Voice Tonality Period”. Use this time to really hear voice tones. (This is a great place to begin since you can also practise it on the telephone.)
  2. For the first 90 seconds (only) in any conversation pay most attention to the tonality of the other person’s voice. After 90 seconds forget about it and carry on as normal.
  3. At the end of the day summarise what you have discovered and recognised. Do this by chatting about your discoveries or write them up in a note book – or both. This is developing the skill of sharpening your senses – or, in NLP jargon, Sensory Acuity.
  4. As you get better at hearing subtle shifts in tonality begin to also guess or, if appropriate, ask the person about what has changed in their mood. This is the developing the skill of Calibrating – learning to recognise what a particular shift signals about the person with whom you are conversing.

That’s all you need to do. After a couple of weeks of doing this your Sensory Acuity and ability to Calibrate in this area will have improved considerably. Now move on to another area. You could begin to study the relationship between, say, breathing patterns and mood shifts.

Words of caution and encouragement

It is not a good idea to show off your newly developed skill as a sort of party piece or an ‘I can read your mind’ trick.

People are quite sensitive to how you respond to their non-verbal communication. Displaying a lack of respect with regard to it may well create long-term animosity.

Conversely, recognising and responding respectfully and appropriately to non-verbal communication is one of the most effective ways of developing and maintaining rapport.

As long as you do draw a person’s conscious attention to what you are doing or what you have done, your skill in this area will enhance your ability to create and to maintain enduring personal, social and professional relationships.



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