Way back in the 1960’s there was a rock group led by Frank Zappa called The Mothers of Invention. Their sound was a kind of punk rock that had little structure or melody, but they were popular for a time due to their grotesque appearance and sound.
I recall one song they did called “Plastic People.” The recurring line in the song was “Plastic people. Oh baby now you’re such a drag.”
Probably many readers of this blog were not even alive in the 1960s, so the title has no context for them. With body language, you do sometimes run into plastic people who may choose to not show much emotion through their facial or body configurations.
Also, you may find some people who are expert at putting on an expression that effectively masks their true emotions. I believe that when people try to hide our true feelings, there is a kind of incongruence to their body language that is a tip off that the person is hiding something.
There are numerous physical and psychological conditions that may prevent a person from showing his or her true feelings in body language. It is not the purpose of this article to enumerate all the combinations that can lead to a person show very little emotion.
I do want to share some ideas on how you might attempt to draw out a person, but recognize that in many situations, the best approach is to just leave the person alone. The correct approach will depend on the person and the current situation.
You probably know someone in your circle of friends who is expert at giving almost no body language information about what is going on in his or her brain. It can be very disconcerting. What can you do in a case like that? Start with listening and observing.
You might try a direct approach and say something like, “I am finding it hard to read your feelings at the moment.” That would potentially annoy the other person if he or she is just attempting to be private.
Another approach is to engage the person in some dialog by asking Socratic Questions. You would need to do this carefully in order to avoid talking down to the person or some other form of insulting dialog that might be interpreted as openly prying.
The need to keep one’s emotions private may be for a number of different reasons, but I suspect a common one is insecurity. The person may have opened up in the past only to get hurt rather badly. So, from that point on, this person would guard his or her emotions rather closely and not give out a lot of information.
Short of trying to psychoanalyze the root cause of this situation, you are better off just letting the person be circumspect. Let the other person decide whether or when he or she wants to make a change.
Another thing you could try is to just be kind and gentle with the person.
If you notice that the person is able to be more human around certain people, dig into why that might be. It could be that your approach is too direct or even threatening.
We all have a tendency to warm up to some people more than others. You may remind the person of another individual who has tangled with him or her in the past. If so, that can be a cause of the withdrawal.
When dealing with a person who is consciously trying to be a plastic person, you need to use patience and emotional intelligence. Do not try to fix the situation quickly, but pay attention to any signals given out that may provide some insight.
This is a part in a series of articles on “Body Language” by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.”
The very first area of personal capability in the ATD Certification Institute Content Outline is “Communication.” Within that category, the second skill area reads: “Skill in applying verbal, written, and/or nonverbal communication techniques.”
Personally, I would add the concept of electronic communication to that bullet, because we continue to communicate more through electronic means than other ways.
Years ago, I saw many professionals make critical errors when trying to communicate online. That observation caused me to write a book on the topic way back in 2006. The book was titled “Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online.” Most of the content is still valid today.
Here are a few of the key points I made in the book.
Use the right mode of communication
Every time we attempt to transfer information through communication, we have a choice of how to do it. For some topics, a “Town Hall Meeting” format will be best. Other times a phone call is the most appropriate, while for other situations an email would be the best choice.
The first rule in communication is to consider what mode to use for a particular situation. For example, if you are having an “e-grenade” battle with another person going back and forth with escalating rancor and distribution, it is a wise strategy to pick up the phone or walk down the hall to change to a less inflammatory method of communicating.
Email is not conversation
Because of the pattern of entering data and then getting a response before adding more information, we often think of email messages as if they are a conversation. But email communication is far different from conversation.
When we are face to face with another person, we have the opportunity to flex our tone, cadence, content, and message based on the real-time body language we observe on the part of the recipient.
In email, we have no ability to modify the message based on how it is being interpreted by the receiver.
We just take our whole unmodified message and put it in a box and plop in into the lap of the receiver. Never think of email as conversation. It is so much easier to get into trouble in email versus face to face communication.
Less is more in emails
To communicate at all, it is necessary for the recipient to not only open the note but to actually read the whole thing and absorb the meanings you put into it. If you have a reputation for sending long, rambling, poorly-formatted emails, you may think you are communicating, but if people just don’t bother to open your notes, then you are in error.
You probably know someone who when you see their name pop up in your inbox, you say something like, “Oh no, not him again. I don’t even want to open this note because it will be upsetting to me and take me 15 minutes to unscramble.”
You know other people who you welcome in your inbox, because you anticipate their note will be well formatted BRIEF and easy to digest. Make sure you are perceived more like the second person than the first.
I have two rules of thumb to keep out of trouble.
Rule 1 – Your email should be able to be read and interpreted in 15-30 seconds. If there is more detail necessary, consider a different form of communication or use optional attachments.
Rule 2 – Make sure that when the reader opens up your note, he or she can see the signature at the bottom of the FIRST page. The reason is that if the text of a note goes “over the horizon” to more pages to come, it puts the reader off because the person does not know how long this note is going to be.
Subject and first sentence set the tone for a note
Before a person opens your note, the only bits of information are your name and the subject. Make sure the subject is clear and unambiguous.
Then, when the person opens up the note, the very first few words will actually set the tone for the entire note. Make sure you start off on the right foot with the reader.
It is best to avoid having the first word be “You.” Reason: regardless of the content to follow, the tone of the first word puts the reader on the defensive. This is especially true if you would follow the pronoun with an absolute (eg “You always,” or “You never”).
Be cheerful but not banal. For example, “Hi George” is a good start, but if it is followed by “I trust this note finds you and your loved ones feeling well” you have lost credibility. Also, while I am on the topic of banal, please do not write at the end of your note, “and remember we will all get through this together.” It was old several months ago.
Emails are permanent documents
Once you hit the send button, you have lost control of the information. It can go to anyone else at any time in the future. When we speak to others, the half life of the information is a few days to a week, but when it is online, the information is available forever. Try to mostly praise people online but coach them verbally.
If you use electronic means to criticize other people, there will likely be significant damage control necessary, as we witness by the tweets of some famous people.
Accomplish your objective
When you communicate online, you have an objective in mind. You want to obtain a positive reaction to your note. When you proofread your note before sending it (which is always a best practice) ask yourself if this content and format is going to get the reaction you wanted.
Write when you are yourself
We have all made the mistake of flashing out to others in email when we are upset. It is sometimes difficult to hold back, but it is always wise to send out notes only when you are in good control of all your faculties.
These are just a few of the points I make in the book. They seem obvious, but in the hub bub of organizational life we sometimes forget these basic ideas. That habit works to our disadvantage.
The preceding information was adapted from the book, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online by Robert Whipple. It is available on http://www.leadergrow.com.
Robert Whipple is also the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders.