“I do believe in atmosphere, you know. People’s thoughts and feelings. They give their impression to the walls and the furniture.”Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
I love detective novels, murder mysteries, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes. I must have read most if not all of them, not to mention the various TV adaptations of diverse quality I have watched.
After a while of course, you begin to notice the (t)ropes, the tricks of the trade. Agatha Christie has written 66 novels and 14 short stories after all. There is bound to be some level of repetition or system – the last-minute twist, the red herring early on…
But what is consistent across her books, and other books in the same style, is the reliance on detectives who somehow hear more than is being said. They notice everything, from a minute pursing of the lips to the décor of a boudoir, to the overused strap of a handbag. And they deduce, and so we deduce too. Whether they are the narrator themselves, or whether we rely on a sidekick (Watson, Hastings) or on the omniscient audience of a TV crime show, our attention is drawn to these little details.
It’s not only in detective stories. Many books give us an enormous amount of information by describing things that the protagonist “notices” – thus quickly letting us know what we need to know about a person or a situation. This creates a very satisfying feeling of knowing things that others don’t – a feeling that can be manipulated by skilled storytellers, such as in The Usual Suspects or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd…
Yes, when diving into the world of fiction we are very good at catching all these little details that writers and directors are subtly drawing our attention to. And this is how we can say with certainty halfway through the story that “it was definitely this guy…”
Unfortunately, life isn’t an episode of Murder She Wrote. We tend to notice very little beyond the words that are being said, and perhaps to some extent the tone. Or at least we don’t think we notice. Our brain unconsciously takes on an enormous amount of additional information, yet we rarely use it to make up our mind about what is going on.
It can be very helpful to “play detective” and use these additional inputs to inform what we do, in all contexts but perhaps especially in a working environment. Here I will give you some reasons why we don’t, and some ideas on getting better at it.
“You had me at hello”
Jerry Maguire walks into a room and launches into a 3 minutes et 40 seconds speech. It starts with:
I’m lookin’ for my wife.”
And it goes on, for a while. It’s very moving of course.
And then Dorothy says:
“Shut up. Just shut up.
You had me at hello.”
Right. Read the room maybe next time, Jerry?
By far the main reason we don’t notice non-verbal cues (or even verbal ones) is that we are too focused on communicating our own message. Jerry walks into a room, he is on a mission, he has prepared what he wants to say. Does he look around, does he check with his wife, does he ask her anything? No. He is 100% in broadcast mode.
Think about a meeting with a team member to whom you want to give feedback. You have prepared what to say, you want to get it through, and you will only accept input insofar as it impacts the delivery of that message.
Maybe there is an agenda you need to go through. Maybe you have prepared a sales pitch and are looking for an opening to deliver it. Maybe you really want this job and you have prepared carefully why you should get it.
Maybe you’ve made up your mind already about what the other person is thinking or feeling and you are not taking in any information that contradicts your view.
What this tends to lead to is not so much not noticing things, but actively ignoring signals. It may not be as obvious as not letting anyone interrupt, but you are probably too focused on your story, your message, to pick up on anything the other party is trying to say.
Sometimes, it’s fine! You go in, do your thing, everybody loves it. That Tom Cruise speech has become a classic for a reason, after all. But in many other cases you would be well advised to take in what’s going on and adjust accordingly.
Put your Miss Marple hat on
Or Sherlock’s or Poirot’s, but personally, I have always had a soft spot for Miss Marple.
At the start of a meeting or interview, don’t jump straight into what you need or want to communicate. Talk less, drink tea, listen more. And really listen, with all your senses, not with your ears while preparing your next reply.
What would Miss Marple have to say about the person in front of you? What would she notice about their body language, their energy, the signals they are sending?
What about the environment, the noise, the furniture?
If you were writing an introduction to the story of this meeting, how would you describe it?
Miss Marple would also watch the other person’s reaction to what you are saying. Are they excited? Do they look bored? Do they look like they have something very specific to say and they are just waiting for you to finish?
If that’s the case, you may want to stop and listen to them first because they will not be listening to you…
If your audience seems uninterested or fidgety, don’t make the common mistake of assuming it’s all about you – Miss Marple certainly wouldn’t! Consider what else might have happened, and what you might do to bring them back to the present.
Finally, absorb all of this and consider: what does it mean for me? Do I need to alter my message? Should I gather more information before launching in? What useful element can I use to strengthen my point?
It will feel like a waste of time at the beginning, because we are action-oriented creatures and your entire body is straining towards action. But it will make your interactions infinitely more productive.
“Harry Kane has gone off the boil a bit”
In a recent Euro 2020 game, the commentator on TV wasn’t impressed with the performance of Harry Kane, the England team captain. “He’s gone off the boil”, was his verdict.
I found this very interesting, not because Harry Kane was playing terribly (he wasn’t) but because the commentator was clearly picking up on what Harry Kane was broadcasting – he was looking stressed, unhappy and frankly a bit disinterested.
I’m pretty sure Kane wasn’t actively trying to communicate these feelings. He may not have been consciously feeling them, or they may not have been about the game. Yet this was the overwhelming impression, one that TV pundits, fans, and presumably his teammates, were picking up on.
As you start trying to read people’s non-verbal signals, be very aware that consciously or not, people are picking up yours as well. What are you communicating? How is your body language, not only when you are talking, but also when you are listening, or in downtime? You may be the type of person who lights up when the spotlight is on them but looks bored when other people are talking. You may be taking emotions from other contexts into the meeting room – your worry for your cat, your lack of sleep – and letting these affect your energy. You may be very stressed, or scared, for a variety of reasons.
There isn’t much you can do about this – we are all human – but you have a decision to make: can you put these feelings back in a box until the end of the interaction? If not, could you acknowledge them to your audience, to give them context and helping them read you more accurately?
If you only read this
- We tend to enter meetings and interactions in broadcast mode, focusing on the message we have prepared and intent on delivering it at all costs
- Yet there is much to gain by taking in the energy and signals from the audience, whether it is one person or many, and adjust or adapt accordingly.
- In parallel, it’s worth thinking about what signals you might be broadcasting yourself, and how they might be affecting the people you work with.
A coach can help you learn how to decipher non-verbal communication, and work on your own energy and presence to make sure you make the most of all of your interactions