For my holiday blog, I'm giving you the first section of my most recent book, Trust Me, free. Enjoy and happy holidays!
Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma
Every communication is two conversations: the verbal one — the content — and the nonverbal one — the body language. If the two are aligned, you can be a persuasive, authentic communicator. You may even come across as charismatic.
If the two are not aligned, people believe the nonverbal communication every time — and you will not seem authentic, even if you’re just authentically nervous! People will believe that you’re faking, or hiding something, or not completely present.
Most of us tend to think of the first conversation, the content, as the important one. We worry a lot about what to say when we’re preparing for an important meeting, giving a big speech, or proposing marriage. And yet we rarely give as much thought to the second conversation: the body language. Then when the communication doesn’t go well, we’re surprised and don’t understand why.
The reason is usually that our two conversations have been in conflict with one another. Our words were confident perhaps, but our body language — the second conversation —was nervous. And as research into how the brain works grows in depth and sophistication, we’re coming to understand that what I’m calling the second conversation is actually more important in some ways than the first one.
We’re still learning about the brain, but it is clear that our normal, everyday working model of it is a little outmoded. Most of us think that we’re relatively rational beings. We get a thought, we decide to act on it, we instruct our bodies to move, and they do. So, for example, we wake up in the morning and think, “I need a cup of coffee.” Our brain then instructs our body to go to the kitchen, prepare the coffee, get the mug out of the kitchen cabinet, and drink ourselves into wakefulness.
But it doesn’t actually work that way much of the time. We get nonverbal impulses for a lot of the important things that drive us: relationships, safety, emotional needs, fears, desires, meeting new people, seeing old friends, and so on. Our bodies immediately start to act on these impulses, and then, a bit later, we form a conscious thought about what we’re doing. It’s as though our rational minds are explaining to ourselves after the fact why we’re doing something.
That intent comes from somewhere deep in the brain, beneath where conscious thought originates. And that intent, coming perhaps from what some call the limbic brain, governs a good deal of our supposedly rational lives.
We are all unconscious experts in each other’s body language
We are all unconscious experts at reading other people’s body language. We learned this from a very early age, back when our lives depended on getting food, love, shelter, and dry diapers.
Nevertheless, few of us are good at reading body language consciously. Instead, we get impressions and ascribe intent to the other person. We think to ourselves, He doesn’t like me very much, or, She’s trying to cut me out, or, They really think I’m funny. And it’s at this level of intent that most of our own body language begins.
If you put together this primacy of body language in many important areas of human concern, with our unconscious expertise at reading it, you get a paradox when you star to think about improving your abilities as a communicator. Here’s the rub. If you start to think hard about your body language because you want to control it and make it align with your content so that you’re persuasive, authentic, and even charismatic, you run into a problem: you’re thinking consciously about an unconscious (preconscious thought) activity, which slows your body language down and makes it happen just a bit late.
The people around you, those unconscious experts, sense that something is wrong, but they can’t put their fingers on the problem precisely. They’ll think something like, He didn’t seem real, or, She looked fake — scripted or something. They won’t tell you the real problem — that your gestures and content are out of sync — because they’re not consciously aware of what’s going on.
It needs to go like this: intent gesture thought words. If you try to control your body language at the level of conscious thought, it will come out like this: thought words gesture. And it will look all wrong.
That’s a problem for any leader who knows that she has to communicate effectively on good days and bad, nervous or not, and prepared or not, and can’t afford to show up looking inauthentic because she’s thinking too hard about trying to appear real.
The problem comes when you make the unconscious conscious
The leader’s behavior is also a problem for coaches, like me, who are expert at watching body language and want to advise you, “Don’t cross your arms at that point in your presentation, because it will look defensive at a moment when you’re talking about being open.” If we coach you at the level of specific gestures, you’ll make them conscious, they’ll happen too slowly and out of sync with your thoughts, and you’ll look fake.
As I’ve coached people over the years, my clients and I have wrestled with this problem. The solution has been to practice over and over again until the coordination of word and gesture becomes second nature, or almost. But thanks to recent brain research and my own continuing efforts to make teaching the two conversations as simple as possible, we can now resolve the paradox with another one.
This change will greatly speed up the work of turning you into a powerful, persuasive, authentic, charismatic communicator, whether you’re having a one-on-one meeting, engaging in a board-level discussion, or giving a speech to a thousand employees.
We are going to accomplish all this by having you work at the level of intent. The paradox is that you’re going to be thinking both hard and consciously, but you’ll resolve the problem by learning how to keep the work at an emotional level, like actors preparing for a role. This way, you’ll be as close to the unconscious mind as possible, even though you are consciously thinking about your communication issues.
I have developed four steps, from simple to more complex, that you can take in order to learn to communicate authentically and charismatically. If you practice these four steps as intuitively as possible, without being too conscious about what you are doing, you’ll find yourself easily resolving communications issues that may have bedeviled you for years.
In addition, for those who want more detailed instruction, I lay out a series of principles of persuasive communication for both the content conversation and the gesture conversation. Take these as guidelines to use as they are appropriate. Different ones apply more powerfully at different times, and you can practice one and then another as you progress to become a more effective communicator.
Over and over again as I have worked with clients while developing this method, I have seen profound transformations happen quickly, even in a couple of hours. Introverted, ineffective communicators have learned to open up and take the stage with confidence and enthusiasm. It’s exciting to watch and will work for you too.
The key is not to intellectualize too much the work you’re going to do. Once you get the hang of it, it will seem easy. So take a deep breath, and jump in. Authenticity and charisma await you.