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A Commando's Guide to Communication in an Age of Masks

7 Tips to Improve Your Ability to Interact & Read Others

Body language is the one form of communication that never stops. Even if someone isn’t talking, their body and face are outwardly manifesting signals that reveal thoughts, feelings, and attitudes from moment to moment.

Unfortunately, these signals have recently become obscured due to the presence of masks, creating an impact on our professional lives. Employees now have to find a way to maintain trust, limit misunderstandings, and achieve various workplace goals that wearing a mask impairs.

When our everyday lives hinge on efficient communication, how can we overcome this visual obstacle?

The key to successful communication when wearing a mask resides in the observation, interpretation, and application of peripheral nonverbal signals. We must also choose to embrace the new normal not as an obstacle but rather as an opportunity to pause, reset, and recommit to the goal of fully immersive interaction.

Before we can begin decoding any body language signals, we must be aware of the principles that will guide our observations and ensure the highest level of accuracy possible:

1. Baseline

2. Context

3. Clusters

Baseline refers to the normal behavior of the people around you. How do the folks you work with closest carry on, typically, from day-to-day? What signals are standard for them? Do you know anyone with idiosyncratic gestures that might not be usual for you, but are perfectly standard for this individual? The more detail you commit to memory, the better.

Deviation in behavior is easier to identify when there is a baseline that you can compare it against.

The context surrounding any interaction will always impact baseline behavior. Typical gestures in the break room will likely not show up in the boss's office. The tone of a question, the emotions present at the outset of dialogue, and who is present to witness the exchange are all examples that will impact the body language of the participants.

Sensitivity to the context will provide a check and balance scale to all interpretations.

Although one nonverbal signal may provide some information, a cluster of relational gestures will always serve better as a guideline to accurate interpretation. A group of signals that are not congruent with the spoken word will create dissonance in the observer's mind. Whenever faced with conflicting information, it is best to believe what was observed, rather than what was heard.

Clusters of signals that relate to one another provide the most accurate blueprint of emotions.

Armed with the principles of body language decoding, we can now begin utilizing a variety of signals to grease the wheels of communication, in addition to decoding many of the peripheral gestures that we will observe.

1. Smizing (smiling with the eyes)

Starting a successful interaction begins with clearly showing the other person that we like them, and nothing does that as well as a warm, genuine smile. But with the mouth covered, flashing a grin can go unnoticed. So, how do we proceed?

The good news here is a genuine smile starts with the eyes, not the mouth. When we feel real warmth or happiness, the outer corners of the eyes crinkle, creating lines commonly referred to as crows feet.

Another by-product of smizing is the total amount of sclera (whites of the eyes) noticeably decreases. In turn, this action pushes moisture into a smaller space, causing light to reflect more prominently. In other words, smizing helps create a twinkle in the eye! If you have ever met someone and felt immediately at home in their presence, there is a real chance they were displaying a smize, and you probably couldn’t help but smize right back! Never underestimate the power of a smize.

2. Head Tilt

To complement your amazing smize and continue along a path of overcoming the mask barrier, now add a slight head tilt. Head tilts are most commonly utilized when speaking to those we like, trust, and feel empathy towards. Implementing even a small tilt will likely increase your active listening skills along with the speaker's propensity to keep talking. The more time you spend observing, the more information the other person will share, both intentionally and unintentionally.

As you begin to practice utilizing a head tilt, try tracking when it is not being used. When a speaker who has had their head tilted returns to an upright position, they might want to add something to the conversation. Otherwise, they may have lost interest in what the speaker has to say and is ready for the conversation to end.

With that in mind, it’s time to move on to the next signal!

3. Head Nod

Occasionally engaging the speaker with a head nod will encourage them to keep talking. People are often concerned with taking up too much time or are hesitant to share the real issue behind the conversation, even when they were the ones to initiate. Encourage them to openly discuss their concerns using a nonverbal sign of affirmation - the nod.

Nodding occasionally also shows engagement and interest in what the speaker has to say, reaffirming that what the speaker says has value. Combined with a head tilt, you’ll leave an impression of an excellent listener.

4. Body and Head Lean Angles

Even in the presence of a mask, there is a lot more of your body you can utilize for body language—specifically, body and head angles.

We tend to lean into situations or people that we like, decreasing the distance between them and us. During a meeting, be sure to show your commitment to what is being said by leaning forward (when practical), or standing/sitting upright when a lean doesn’t work. The extra attention to your posture, sitting or standing, will provide cues to the speaker that you are an active participant soaking up the information and ready to jump in when the time is right. Sitting or leaning back, keeping your arms folded, or hiding your hands from the speaker can easily promote the wrong nonverbal message. It shows a detachment from the speaker, which can lead to misunderstandings and issues later on.

Even in the case where you do feel detached from the speaker, using body language signals that are more positively inclined can cause a change in emotions. At the very least, it can slow the negative decline in attitude and help you re-engage.

However, maybe the problem isn’t engaging with the speaker, but rather the audience engaging with you. In that case, start by focusing on your hands.

5. 10% More Illustrators

We all tend to use our hands when talking, to one degree or another. Hand illustrator gestures provide context, scale, and additional life to our words. Slightly increasing hand movements when talking will help compensate for the detached feelings we will experience when communicating with one another through a mask.

6. Open Palms

Increasing the illustrators you use is a great start, but also pay attention to where your hands are facing. Hand positions that display open palms and relaxed fingers have been linked to the best communication experiences. Although we have come a long way in terms of technological advances, we are still a species fueled by our primitive brains. We tend to feel more relaxed when we can see another’s hands, and considerably more favorable towards those that show us their palms. Once the primitive brain is at ease, other areas of cognitive function are free to continue their assessment without the distraction or stress that hidden hands can cause.

7. Verbal Considerations

We’ve covered six signals that rely solely on body language, but a mask impairs one more thing: The spoken word.

A mask impedes the airwaves that carry our words. Fast talkers, those with strong accents, or individuals with a tendency to roll one word into another will need to slow down their speech to minimize mask distortion. It will be less frustrating for all concerned if each company establishes an agreement that openly and preemptively acknowledges the barriers that wearing a mask creates. Among hiding body language signals, wearing a mask muffles the sound of your voice. Practicing patience when we cannot understand the other speaker is crucial for both parties.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid confusion. One example is to avoid the use of filler sounds such as like, umm, ah, errr, sooo, and you know.

The speaker should also utilize a pause to allow for uncluttered speech. This will provide time for the listener to process what was said and ask questions if they have any.

Pausing is one of the most powerful communication tools we have at our disposal.

The art of using a quiet moment between words or sentences takes a great deal of practice. Still, it will demonstrate poise, confidence, and professionalism, setting the user worlds apart from those that won’t or can’t embrace the silence.

In Conclusion…

In a world impacted by a myriad of distractions, we must set aside the drain on our cognitive resources and apply effort to full immersion during each interaction. This level of focus will aid in our ability to implement, observe, and identify a multitude of peripheral nonverbal signals, empowering us with communication skills that will be of benefit for years to come.

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