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.