Conscious Communication


I’ve been thinking about conscious communication a lot these days. It’s a complex topic that doesn’t get enough attention. Usually it gets attention when it’s a problem and then frequently that problem appears to be an insoluble one. Non-verbal communication incorporates everything from bad breath and taking personal space to an inexplicable feeling of discomfort that one can have in the presence of someone that makes you feel, well, uncomfortable. We are often left speechless in the face of these transgressions because they are non-verbal forms of communication and we don’t know how to discuss them.

Many years ago I walked into an office in a large organization and was overcome by a palpable feeling of unease, as though I had just walked into a prison. The 5 or 6 staff in the outer office were attentive to their work, heads down and studiously ignoring me and yet I knew they were aware of my presence. The receptionist looked up and asked politely if she could help me but the feeling she and the others conveyed was that the very last thing they wanted to do was to help me. It felt like they just wanted to be somewhere else really badly. When I left I was mystified as to what was going on; I couldn’t put my finger on why that room emitted such a strong unwelcoming feeling.

What I had experienced and didn’t realize at the time was what psychologists call “affect contagion”, the transmission of emotional states via non-verbal means. “Emotions can be contagious (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994), and if a toxic mood is spread throughout a work group or an organization, organizational performance and employee work-related attitudes can suffer” (e.g., Frost, 2003; Rothbard & Wilk, 2011) One of the reasons affect contagion is often an unaddressed issue in the workplace is because it is all about emotions. Emotions in the workplace in many organizations are regarded as better left at home. The workplace is a place for thinking and acting rationally and feelings are regarded as irrational – unless they are modulated, positive and “appropriate” to the situation.

In the last decade or so there has been a greater willingness, as a result of research, to investigate the impact of emotions and non-verbal communications in the workplace, frequently because of the demonstrated link to the corporate bottom line. For example, researchers are showing that the mood of a leader can have a profound impact on the performance of a team; “the findings suggest that in order to enhance subordinates’ work experience and to attain desired outcomes, leaders should be aware of their mood and its potential effects.” (J Volmer, 2011)

How does one begin to deal with issues surrounding non-verbal communication and affect contagion in the workplace? In the absence of a management-sponsored program approach, employees are left to their own devices. In my experience, recognizing that unspoken issues exist is the starting place. A foundational belief that helps is to know that all behaviour makes sense – in other words, feelings are indeed rational; it’s just that we don’t always get to the bottom of the meaning underlying them. Coaching is, in my experience, a powerful, effective, and safe way to explore this territory. Coaching with horses is especially powerful because it leverages the learning due to the ability of the horses to provide instant honest feedback – non-verbally. We can see and understand our impact in ways that are clear and unequivocal.

When I started working and playing with horses, I started to really understand non-verbal communication and affect contagion. Horses are non-verbal creatures – their communication is all body language and affect contagion. In order to successfully communicate with horses one inevitably must become conscious of these means of sending and receiving information. This attention to detail in communicating with the horses got me paying a lot more attention to the non-verbal in my human-to-human relationships and has been extremely helpful. I can’t say I always understand and get it right or that I have mastered the art and skill of non-verbal communication but it has improved my awareness and response-ability enormously.

The picture I chose for this post tells a powerful story about successful conscious communication – all of it non-verbal and fraught with affect contagion. At this lovely horse facility hidden away in the heart of Vancouver, the horses who live there have the luxury of time out in a field where they can do what horses love to do the most – put their heads down and mow the lawn. At the end of their shift, they come in and the next pair of horses get to go out until each horse has had his or her turn. Shift change is full of heightened emotion for these horses as there are six horses in total waiting to go out in pairs. There is a usual order of go but sometimes that order can change depending on a number of variables that might affect the schedule for the day.  Hence there is always a little feeling of competition and tension about whose turn it is until the last shift is handled and they have all had their turn. Then they all settle down – until tomorrow.

When I had my horse at this stable I taught some of the owners how to communicate with body language and affect such that we could move the horses in and out of the field without having to use halters and lead ropes. In order for this to work and not turn into a rodeo, one has to master the non-verbal signals and have the inner conviction of a leader that can convince the horses to leave what they want to do more than anything else – mow the lawn – and go back to their stalls and paddocks in a nice polite and respectful manner. What I captured in the moment was one of the owners bringing two horses in from their field time. You might be able to notice the two heading toward the camera looking pretty relaxed with their heads down and walking at a comfortable pace. The two with their heads out of their stalls are watching for the opportunity to a) bite the hind end of a horse who passes too close to their stall and b) be ready to go as soon as their stall door is open and the human gives the cue, meaning it is his or her turn to get into the field.

The communication in this moment is so rich and complex. It involves six sentient beings each with his/her own beliefs, feelings, relationships, expectations, and moods. Each is sending and receiving information through body language and affect, taking in messages from the others, and responding and adjusting his or her state and body language according to beliefs, intentions and mood. All of this simple and yet complex interaction is held together by the communication and leadership skills of the woman in the background. Slight changes in her affect and body language could turn the peace and willing cooperative order of this moment into chaos  –  horses cantering, biting, kicking and bolting in all directions. And yet this small uneventful moment in a beautiful daily routine is held together and carried out with deliberate grace and thoughtful execution. It is a powerful analogy to the daily interactions in the workplace. Conscious communication indeed.

If you are interested in exploring conscious communication further, contact me to arrange one-to-one coaching. I can guarantee you will be glad you did.