Most people who regularly engage others in debate or conversation recognize that there’s a difference between information and influence. I certainly don’t want to engage people on a topic without first possessing the proper information; all of us want to speak from a position of informational certainty. But having information alone, even true information, does not guarantee that we will influence those with whom we talk. The recent presidential debates illustrate this reality and provide Christian Case Makers with important lessons.
At the conclusion of each debate, many of us came to very different conclusions about how each candidate performed. We disagreed about what each candidate meant, and the degree to which each candidate was able to influential the nation. Now it is true that some of our opinions were rooted in prior political commitments, but when I encounter someone who wants to talk about the presidential debates, the first thing I ask is, “How did you experience the debate? Did you read it, listen to it, or watch it?” I recognize that people are influenced (whether politically or otherwise) based on how they receive information. If we simply read the transcript of the debate, we’ll miss the important tone and inflection indicators that inform us about the true intention of each speaker. If we simply listen to the debate, we’ll miss all the non-verbal physical indicators that help us understand what was intended by each candidate.
A speaker can possess the correct information; yet still lose the battle of influence. The content of our words is impacted by all the tones, inflections and non-verbal cues that accompany them. In fact, experts believe that “nonverbal communication makes up about two-thirds of all communication.” Informational content alone is not enough; how we deliver information is often more important than what we delivered. This is true for those who engage in political debates and it’s also true for those of use who engage in conversations about our faith. When you’re about to begin a conversation about the things of God, make sure you possess the correct information, then think about these commonly recognized “non-verbal” considerations as you communicate with others:
Am I paying attention to my tone, volume and inflection?
The tone, volume and pitch of my words matter. Have I been consistent in matching these audible characteristics with the content of my speech?
Am I paying attention to my physical distance?
Am I careful not to invade the “personal space” of the person with whom I am talking? Is my distance from him or her appropriate for the level of familiarity I have with this person?
Am I paying attention to my general appearance?
Like it or not, appearances also matter. Am I dressed in a way that connects me to the person with whom I am talking? Does my clothing, hairstyle or physical appearance project an image that helps others embrace or reject what I have to say?
Am I paying attention to my body language?
Before considering specific details related to body movement, there are some important general considerations to address. Am I careful to communicate “openness” and interest, or do I project rigid defensiveness by crossing my arms and legs or slouching?
Am I paying attention to my facial expressions?
Am I smiling appropriately, frowning inappropriately, projecting undue harshness or condescending impatience?
Am I paying attention to my hand gestures?
Are my gestures appropriate? Am I careful not to exaggerate a point with an unnecessary gesture, or do I miss a chance to drive a point home with a small movement?
Am I paying attention to my eye contact?
Do I make eye contact that is appropriate given the nature of the discussion? Am I trying to “stare down” my “opponent” or am I communicating interest and empathy with my eyes?
Am I paying attention to my physical contact?
Am I careful to respect the relationship I have with this person and either resist or utilize the power of appropriate contact to communicate an important point (i.e. touching a shoulder to communicate understanding, etc.)
As I look back at successful interviews (and interrogations) that I’ve conducted with suspects over the years, and as I review the video recordings of these interactions, I realize that most of what I was able to communicate relied on non-verbal actions rather than spoken words. I knew when to inflect a point, when to pause for effect, when to use a facial expression to convey empathy or disbelief and when to use my body language to demonstrate approval or skepticism. None of this would have been available to a jury if all I had were a transcript of the interview. The jury needed to see what I said just as much as they needed to hear or read it. The recent presidential debates were no different. Each candidate came into the debate prepared with information, but their influence resulted from the way they communicated this information with words and with non-verbal modes of communication.