Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Flying and Reading Minds

Would you rather fly or be able to read minds? This rather binary question is supposedly a guide to understanding whether you are “left brain” or “right brain”. I’ve never really understood how the answer to this question can tell anyone that, but it’s so widely accepted, it must be right. Right? I’ve always thought it was an unfair choice.

Who doesn’t want to do both? Flying would be amazing (with a windshield of course) and reading people’s minds speaks to a very human desire to understand one another. Ironically enough, we can do both of those things now, and often we don’t exercise that ability.

“Wait…did he say we can read each other’s minds?” That’s right. I did say that. And to an extent, I’m kind of right. We have to the ability to communicate with each other. Communication is more than just sharing what we mean with other people. It’s also how we find out what other people mean. The problem is many of us don’t take advantage of every avenue of communication in a few key areas.

For example: thanks to Will Smith, we’ve all heard that 60% of what you say isn’t what you say because of nonverbal communication. If we know this much, we’re off to a dynamic start. However, how many times have we seen the confusion that just misunderstanding a tone of voice can cause? Or assumed that a person who was truthful wasn’t because they wouldn’t maintain eye contact? Even something as simple as a handshake can lead to misunderstood intentions simply due to the way we shake hands. Why are there so many misunderstandings around simple things?

Simply put, it comes from our own lack of knowledge of nonverbal communication. We expect nonverbal communication to have the same formulaic laws and rules as language, which is understandable. We’re taught at a young age that language is communication. Before we learn language, we only really have a few tools to expression, namely, crying, smiling, laughing or simply remaining silent.

This isn’t a denunciation of language by any means. But it seems that we forget the most important rule of nonverbal communication once we learn verbal communication:  nonverbal communication doesn’t have a set of universal rules to govern it. I’ve always felt this was primarily due to the fact that nonverbal communication encompasses more than just intentional communication.

We rarely say or write things that we didn’t mean to write. We formulate sentences before we share them. By the time our words have entered into the common area, they’ve been especially created for the purpose of presenting a specific thought from us to others. While some people may think more about their word choice than others, it still doesn’t negate the fact that we all put some amount of thought into what we say. How we say it may be another matter altogether. But that’s not where the problems lie.

The problem lies in the fact that we know that nonverbal communication isn’t “thought out” and that in most cases it’s almost impossible to control all aspects of it. Often, we mistakenly think since people don’t actively control nonverbal communication, that it all must mean the same thing in each and every person, which unfortunately is just not true. While some things, such as pupil dilation or the electrical impulses that can be measured through the skin, are completely beyond our control, the majority of nonverbal communication has no set meaning from person to person.  We’ve all had someone ask us what “that look” meant. 

Here’s the takeaway: communication is a way to share meaning, in some cases it may be systemic, but in others it may have no rhyme or reason about it. So instead of assuming, take the time to really understand what meaning is trying to be conveyed.

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