Communication: it’s not what you say, but the way that you do it

Something not said?

Karl Popper’s comment


Maybe we start communicating with one another on the back foot.

……  so let’s consider

…. the HOW of my communications.

There are hidden messages that I give out, often unintentionally. By their very nature, these can be hidden from my view, and yours.

Each one is a Blind Spot. for you, for me or for both of us. Let’s look at a few of them, and some potential small, safe experiments that go with them.

First impressions

It appears that we make up our minds about people very quickly.  Those first impressions have large impact and, indeed, they can become difficult to change.

Safe (?) experiment: as far as good communications are concerned; speak your mind and be yourself. There is little mileage in being all things to all people.

Accept that you are not ‘right’ for each and every-one. Let others choose whether to continue the conversation with you. Despite the sense of urgency that comes over in modern social media, you have no ‘message’ that is so essential that the world has to listen to you.


It may be a sign of the times that people can dress in all manner of styles and fabrics.  This does not mean that appearances are now less important. Appearance is but one ingredient of a first impression, and it can make a lasting appearance.

Safe experiment: dress as you think fit, but altering your appearance can be a small, safe experiment that promotes curiosity in yourself, and another person.

As you gather ‘results’ from your experiment, be open to understanding the impact of your appearance on others.  Shoddy dress, informal dress and shirt-and-tie all send different messages.

More importantly, how you dress alters  the impact of any verbal message you send to other people.

You can alter your appearance according to the different people you meet in order to just notice the outcome.


In the song, IF, David Gates says ‘a picture paints a thousand words‘.

Roughly the same applies with the ‘small’ gestures each of us make when we start to communicate.  If I say ‘yes‘ with my mouth, but move my head from side-to-side, it’s the ‘no’ in that movement that is likely to possess greater influence on any watching me. 

There are some other gestures that help:

  • use of hands. Some things really do not help, e.g. ‘steeple’ hands, as though praying. Other movements of our hands can be aggressive – chopping and thumping. More encouraging is the open palm, and slow movements toward ourselves.
  • how you stand or sit in relation to another person. Standing over another person is not, in general, a good idea!
  • movement: there are movements we make that are unhelpful such as agitation of the hands and feet. We are not always aware of these movements.
  • links between words used and body actions – see my ‘yes’ and ‘no example, above.
  • use of accessories, e.g. fiddling with pens or clothing can be a distraction, or a point of emphasis.
  • use of face: the way we smile, use eye gaze and open or close our eyes all have impact. That impact varies from culture to culture and, indeed, audience to audience. The Ventral Vagus has a large impact on the way we use our face.
  • be especially aware of ‘eyes’: the visual channel of communication is dominant in humans. Our eyes occupy a small part of our body, but a large part of our attention.  For instance, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) makes much of eye movements and, in particular, the red triangle that sits between the eye and the nose.
  • use of nose: nostrils flaring, and touching of the nose can have be impactful and, again, there are cultural variations.
  • any action can be an encouragement to attend to you, or a diversion from what you have to say. Most good communicators appear to project a still and calm demeanour. They speak slowly and modulate their voice. Take a look at the delivery offered by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

…. keep in mind is that the smallest gesture can convey how we feel, especially when I feel anxious.  There are times when we need to communicate our feelings clearly, and others times when those same feelings can get in the way of our ‘message’, e.g. when your safe experiment is practising the art of assertiveness.

Safe experiments: there are many to explore!

The smallest movement of a hand, or the mere glimmer on your face can say it all! The eyes can make the most powerful of ‘gestures’. Transactional Analysis is very helpful in ordering the kind of transactions we make with words and gestures. 

Sometimes, you will want a ‘complementary’ transaction so the conversation continues. Other times, you may value a ‘crossed’ transaction to stop a specific line of inquiry, or to have a different kind of impact on the person with you. Useful when ‘fogging’.

Other gestures that can get in the way include hands-in-pockets and crossed arms.  Hand-over-mouth is unhelpful, but easy to do when we want to stop our words getting out!


There is a gap between saying ‘yes‘ and conveying ‘no‘. My example of the head movement saying ‘no’ and my words saying ‘yes’, is a good example of incongruence. Others can be sensitive to such incongruence – even if they cannot identify the evidence for their doubt and uncertainty.

Safe experiment: here’s one that emerges from counselling training; agree to have some fun with another person by taking it in turns to be the worst communicator you can be for just a few minutes. What do you both notice about the nature of  ‘poor communication’?

A second safe experiment: very occasionally, be open about your own incongruences when you notice them. You cannot notice each and every-one and communication is not always about ‘you’ so this experiment can be disruptive. Equally, it can re-assure others, when you are congruent about your incongruences!


Similar things can be said about posture. In my past, people have been put off by what has been described as my ‘laid back’ manner. This is portrayed, for the most part, in my tendency to slouch, without quite slipping off my chair.  I have got to the point in my life where I am now less concerned about this habit, but I remain aware that it has not done me so many favours in the past.

Safe experiment: as with gesture, so with posture, there are many possibilities. The important things is to use a different action or movement as long as you notice any outcome.


Despite what I have said about words, some words are more important than others and some can have a disproportionate impact on us.  Elsewhere I have touched on ‘try’, so what about seemingly innocent words such  as ‘but‘, ‘honest‘, ‘really‘, ‘frankly‘ and ‘literally‘.  If it is not obvious how such words can make for problems and yet most humans think visually. We make pictures from words.

Safe experiment: Take some time to consider what the words I list above convey to you when they are visualised?  Could it be a picture of conflict? A ‘thumping’ of hands to emphasise a point of view? Is the picture harmonious or oppositional to you? 

If you want to do more, consider the word ‘literal‘: what picture is painted by that word? Compare that picture with your images of truth and beauty. These are qualities that most of us value,  but are there times when these qualities make you alert and suspicious! How do you respond when some says: “tell you the truth …….”, or “to be honest with you…..”

Safe experiment: take a look at the further experiments way down this page

Can you find an everyday situation where it will be possible to practice the use of those safe experiments for the shortest amount of time? Can you notice the impact of doing something just a little bit different?

What are the differences and what might you do to build on any outcome you value?


At the best of times, it is easy to fluff words and not be heard clearly.  This appear to become even more likely when I want to raise a sensitive topic. When part of me wants to raise a sensitive topic, another part of me has mixed feelings about being heard.  Rhythm and pace each impact on the powerfulness of the words we use.

Safe experiment: in general, good communicators use everyday words, short sentences and a slow delivery in a tone that varies in volume and emphasis (without being patronising).  Can you find an opportunity to do this just for a few seconds? Can you find some-one who is willing to give it a go? Maybe, share a few moments to to try it out on one another?

A further safe experimentthe Feeling Fact, described near the bottom of this page  – provides a good example of the problem that can arise here. Describing our specific concern is more difficult than displaying the feeling that we have about the topic.

Yet another safe experiment: rehearsal. It’s not likely that you will need to give a formal address to a large audience. However, you may feel anxious about going into an uncertain situation – a meeting, or a busy area of a strange town.

Here rehearsal is an essential experiment. You can rehearse in your head; that’s what visualisation can do. Just notice the possible problems that might arise. The repeat the action by editing out problems and just noticing what you might do to meet an obstacle on your scenic route. If  ‘Special Time’ can used, then you can recruit some active support and rehearsal in your head and out loud.

I say this knowing that there is very little that is natural about Special Time. So why not doing something else that’s weird!! The key point is to rehearse for a relatively short amount of time. It is difficult to sustain a communications style that’s just a little bit different.

Use of silence

You may have noticed that there are many forms of silence; from the contemplative to the ordered, as well as the productive to the embarrassing. How come do these differences arise? Gaps between things we say are needed to make sense of our words and that’s not always happening.

Safe experiment:  that’s a tricky one. One person’s contemplative silence might be another person’s embarrassment. Therefore, my advice here is to practice the art of ‘just noticing’. Many things’ just noticed’ might change the outcome of a communication you make – if not today, maybe tomorrow, or next week.

Now here’s a real challenge: rehearsing and just noticing can undermine our ability to be congruent; that is, simply be ourselves. That can mean that safe experiments, such as those listed on this page, may make it difficult to develop ‘rational’ plans for change. Can you notice the discomfort when that happens?

Presence of conflict

Several communications will have a hint of difference, or conflict. Some will contain explicit conflict.  Is there room for pretending its not there? Is there value in naming it quite openly?

No clear rule, is there? Sometimes spelling it out will encourage the other person and, other times,  stop them in their tracks. Often we are encouraged to ignore bad behaviour (say, in children), so the behaviour is not reinforced. However, where conflict is ‘bad behaviour’ may be pointing it out is important; something to learn from?

Safe experiment: there is a page on assertive communication and on the use of ‘fogging’ here. Which is to be, given that ignoring the experience of conflict is still a third way of responding.

I’ve no rule to offer you about these choices; indeed, there may be others open to you. Even so, if you do not notice your experience of that conflict in the first place, then there is nothing to be learned from the event.

It follows, then, that one essential safe experiment that is relevant to all this is the Body Scan. I make no apology for pointing to this fundamental safe experiment again and again.

Safe experiments in communications without any one else around!

By the way, you’d think that safe experiments in communication require at least two people. Not so. Albert Einstein developed a whole new perspective on physics by ‘thought experiments’. These can help us to improve communications as well as there are at least two people in our own heads!

Too often that internal dialogue presents a problem so its important to design the experiment that imagines not only the problems and pitfalls, but the options and ways around obstacles – long before the event. This safe experiment involves rehearsing and practising your response to something you know is going to happen, e.g. job interview. During this safe experiment, you accept that it is not possible to anticipate all problems anymore than you can envisage all the problems that will crop up.

However, practise may improved self-confidence. This quality, alone, can make a difference when it comes to the crunch. Elsewhere, I mention the value of Anna’s solution “Whenever I feel afraid” in The King and I!

A summary

I’ll end with a word about the qualities that good communicators seem to possess. Can you develop your owns short list? The qualities are less easy to improve through safe experiment but paying attention to the qualities you possess, as you communicate, may well prove valuable in time.

I have placed emphasis on one quality already; that is, the quality of Curiosity.

Some of the other qualities of good communicators I’d mention are: enthusiastic, calm, sensitive, fluent, but not garbled, thoughtful, reflective and credible.  Specialists in public communication speak of being prepared, focused and persuasive.

For me, these qualities help if:

  • we are prepared to meet our small defeats, and learn from them;
  • able to focus on the other person, not just myself, and
  • persuasive enough to change our own minds, not just intent on changing the minds of others.

Further leads to consider

What is a nudge

Designing a safe experiment

Grouping safe experiments

Keeping it small

Responsibility for safe experiments

Walking the walk

Limits to safe experiments

Obstacles to safe experiments