We humans always have a strong tendency to want to have a sense of control over all if not most aspects of our lives. This includes our communications with others. When the communication process goes well, we often have the impression that it’s both us and the other parties who have made the decision for the communication process to be successful. After all, it takes two hands to clap. And if the communication process fails, we often attribute the causes to either us or the other parties not making the necessary effort to sustain the communication process. In another words, we – as communicators – often think that responding positively to others (and hence making a communication process work) is a deliberate choice made by all communicating parties.
This is a misconception.
The act of responding positively to others (which often results in successful communications) is more of an innate response or reaction (to certain existing/created stimuli within the context of the situation) than deliberate decisions made by us.
In this article, please allow me to show you why this is so.
While it’s undeniable that all of us do put in effort to ensure successful communication with others and that mutual efforts in maintaining and sustaining successful communication are required by all communicating parties, something far more important is required (which is often beyond our control). I will like to call this crucial factor that plays a determining role in the success of any communications “stimulus”. While this term may sound rather technical and scientific in nature, I couldn’t think of any other terms that could better define or describe the causes behind the successes/failures in any human interpersonal communications. What are meant by “stimulus” in this context are the elements that are present in us as communicators who subsequently evoke a certain positive/negative natural reaction/responses in others. Others often cannot control these natural reactions and even if they do, it will be futile since these reaction/responses due to external stimuli are often overwhelmingly powerful to the point of rendering their resistance useless. The converse holds true as well. We cannot control our responses to others but merely react to certain stimuli which exist in others or are created by them. In another words, we are living on “automatic pilot” mode. Understanding these stimuli thus becomes crucial since these stimuli form the basis for other’s perception of us as person, their receptivity to our communication styles and more importantly, their decision in putting in an effort to ensure successful communications.
So, what are these stimuli? They are as follows:
- Facial/Physical attractiveness: Although there will probably be some of us wanting to believe that personality supersedes facial/physical attractiveness, let’s face it. Inner beauty is important but in this contemporary world where external beauty is often portrayed by the media through visual forms (since it’s the only way that advertising can be easily done), we often assess people through their physical appearances. Chiseled cheekbones, masculine voice and a toned physique will probably give most guys an edge in their communications while a gentle feminine voice, attractive facial features as well as a caring quality will probably give ladies an advantage in enhancing the success of their communications. Some of you might be thinking that this is mere stereotyping but we should not deny the fact that primitive attraction factors have played a crucial role in the success of our communications since the time of our forebears. Just observe a guy speaking to a group of ladies. Which face does his eyes stay the longest? Usually it’s the lady with the most attractive facial features or the lady who is the most well-groomed. There have been changes in recent years, what with the rise of the metrosexuals (increased feminity in males) and feminism (where females are now taking on more masculine activities or roles such as the increased participation of ladies in dragon boat rowing activities which gives them a more toned physique and a darker complexion). I am unsure how these individuals have affected this stimuli but one thing is certain: people sense these differences in them. This is one stimulus that we cannot change much but we can change certain aspects of it. I will talk more about this below.
- Personal grooming: While facial/physical attractive cannot be changed to a large degree (since it’s often innate), we can still make a choice on external factors, one of which is personal grooming. As mentioned above, people focus on our appearances first, then they assess our personalities (“Looks first, personality second”). While this is definitely not a good technique to adopt in the dating scene but it’s undeniably a fact that most us still do that (especially when guys are primarily visually-oriented). The bad news is that assessing someone’s physical appearances – be it their physical attractiveness or their personal grooming – is one of the worst ways to determine the success of a marriage/communication. But then again, the good news is that we all wear clothes for modesty reasons and hence this gives us a unique opportunity to enhance our attractiveness. In contemporary times where style is valued more than substance, modesty is no longer the only reason that we wear clothes. With the influx of individualism and creativity, developing and flaunting our own fashion sense has become the more prominent reason. After all, we are moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs now, yes? Of course, people do not only focus on our clothes. They do focus on our hairdo and clothes accessories (such as belt buckles, shoes, spectacles etc). These are things that we are able to enhance through an improvement in our personal grooming. This stimulus is one of the easier factors to improve on and we should make every effort to do so.
- Smile: Now, while we cannot alter much of our physical appearances, we can always do something about our facial muscles. No, not frown but the exact opposite: smile. Research has been done in these areas and the findings are interesting. Regardless of our cultures, life experiences or upbringing, all of us recognise a happy face. And more than that, a smiling face evokes an uplifting feeling in us and as a result, we tend to communicate more with someone who is smiling. We can try an exercise. Try observing a group of people who are communicating with one another and observe the speaker. When he/she exchanges eye contact with his communicating parties, observe the time spent on the parties. Who does he/she spend more time on in terms of maintaining eye contact (a sign of positive communication)? I believe it’s the person who is smiling (more). If you were to ask the speaker why this is so, they will probably be puzzled about your question since they do not see your observation in themselves. This is because responding positively to others due to specific stimulus is not done at a conscious level. It is usually a reaction at a (very) subtle, unconscious level, to the point that the communicator is not aware of it. In another word, giving a positive response to/ having a positive impression of someone is not a choice; it is a reaction. It’s true that we do not have total/complete control over someone else’s response to us or even their perception of us. However, we do have some control to tip the scale of likeability to our advantage, one of which is to smile and the other is the use of eye contact, which we will explore below.
- Eye contact: This is another stimulus that goes along well with a smile. Usually, great communications take place when these two stimuli are used in combination. And the longer the eye contact with the other party while maintaining a smile, the more receptive is the other party towards us. However, it will be good to understand that too long an eye contact when conversing will lead the other party to interpret that we have a special interest in them. This might in turn mislead others to interpret our eye contact as a form of romantic interest. Unless we intend to convey this intention of ours to the other party, it’s best to look away intermittently either when speaking or listening to others. Nevertheless, the general rule stands that the longer the eye contact from another person, the more interested is that person in us. Another point to note is that the eye contact has to be gentle and friendly. It’s best if we are able to express these emotions in our eyes. There’s an adage that says that “The eyes are the window to our souls.” This is very true, and we can express our emotions through our eye contact with others simply by directing our thoughts towards them. Thoughts such as “I like conversing with this person”, “This person is interesting” and “It’s such a pleasure knowing this person” will help. It’s very challenging to explain how this process works in words but it’s often the case that – like telepathy – the other party senses what we want to tell them merely by observing our facial expression and more importantly, our eye contact. Personally, I will put the impact of a visual impression on others at: 75% eye contact and 25% facial expression. This is how important eye contact is. For those of us who are uncomfortable with maintaining eye contact with someone, we can try looking at the bridge of the nose directly between the eyes. It will give the impression that we are maintaining eye contact with the other party. This is not an act of deception/manipulation but merely, a tool that we should use if we wish to sincerely maintain eye contact with others in a comfortable way.
- Situation/Context: Another stimulus that is important (but not within much of our control) is the situation/context that our communication with others take place. For example, if the other parties are having a bad day and hence are not in the right state of mind to communicate, our efforts and attempts to communicate well with them will probably fail no matter what we do, because great communication takes place when both parties put in effort to communicate. One way we can improve the situation is to make the conversation light, touching on topics that are humourous (not too serious) and non-offensive. Sometimes, even this does not work, in which case we should avoid communicating with the other party for now and wait for a better opportunity. If the person that we wish to communicate is someone we meet at a social gathering and there’s a very slim chance that we will meet them again, then it’s best that we make full use of this opportune time by engaging the person in a conversation for a short while, identify the commonalities between them and ourselves and then excusing ourselves after that (not forgetting to get their contacts before leaving). Contrary to what some of us believe, the environment where we establish communication with others is important, very important. For example, the responses of a CEO if we were to approach him/her in his office to establish communication during office hours will be very much different from how he/she will respond to us if we were to approach them in the golf course where they are practising their craft during the weekends, the primary reason being that when we communicate, we are also considering what others perceive of us. In this case, a CEO – in his/her capacity as a CEO of an organisation – will be much more conscious of how he/she presents himself/herself and responds to others in the office than when he/she is off-duty. Along the same vein, we will also be much self-conscious in certain environments (such as social gatherings, being a public speaker in front of your audience during the Q & A session etc) than in others (relaxing at home, chatting with close friends etc). Thus selecting the right environment – in a way- is also selecting the right stimulus for positive and successful communication.
- Humility: When it comes to conversations, quite a number of us neglects or rather, trivialises the importance of humility in conversation content. Many of knows what to talk about but there’s a number of us who do not know how to go about talking about it. Consider the following responses of a person when we ask them about their jobs:
Response from Mr X: “I am an educator in Communication studies. Basically, I coach and mentor students in their studies in areas of communications, and I find this profession personally very fulfilling because it will improve all if not most aspects of my students’ lives. Frankly, I see this profession more as a calling than a job and I really love what I am doing right now. And seriously, I really learn a lot from my students even as I am coaching them. I figure we all learn from the experiences of others in life. How about yourself? Please allow me to get to know more about you. “
Response from Mr Y: “I am an educator in Communications, with a Bachelor in Mass Communications, majoring in Journalism and Media Studies. Previously, I have pursued a degree in Computing. I figure that these two degrees will get me far in life and hence have made plans for it ten years earlier. You know, as an educator, we have to be far-sighted and encourage students to do the same by making plans so that they will turn out well in life, just like myself. Oh, and did I mention that I have been nominated as the Best Educator of the Year and won? Wow! Isn’t that amazing? How about yourself? Are you doing great in life?”
Which person do you have a more positive impression? I believe that most of you would have a more favourable impression of Mr X rather than Mr Y. Why is this so, since both of them are basically answering our question correctly? This is because there is humility in the response from Mr X but not so for Mr Y. Humility is one of the most powerful stimuli that one can have in a conversation, any conversations.
- Caring/Altruistic nature: While this is often considered to be more of a feminine quality that is often preferred in females, I believe that most of us value such a quality regardless of one’s gender. A caring/quality can almost always change a person’s impression towards us. Imagine when you are at a loss when you are lost in a foreign city and someone comes forward to help you (or responds to you when you approach them for assistance). How do you feel? Or when we are at a loss about what to do regarding certain issues and someone close to you offers (not advice) but a listening ear. How do you feel afterwards? Comforted? Reassured? A sense of having a heavy load lifted off our chests? Usually we do. Isn’t that a good feeling? Of not taking the entire load of the world upon ourselves and having others to lend a hand (or an ear)? Isn’t it great to have someone by our sides not only during our happy times but troubled/stressful times as well? If we can be that person, we will have created one more stimulus that contributes/enhance our attractiveness as a communicator. This is especially so when guys are communicating to the ladies, since the ladies are primarily personality-based (However, there’s should be a limit as some individuals will treat us as their psychologists or counsellors, which we are not. For such cases, we have to draw a line). The converse holds true, since guys favour ladies who are caring as well. This is often not the case when we look at the conversations among males, who often consider independence and self-sustenance as stronger attributes than altruism. However, if both communication parties comprises of both gender, then a caring personality once again serves as a strong stimulus for great communication.
- Humour: It’s a fact that humour unites and tension divides. I believe that most of us like a more jovial social environment than tension-filled ones. Just think of a time when we are at a party where we are enjoying ourselves and compare that to a situation when we are standing next to someone who is shouting in the phone angrily and waving his arms wildly. Which gives us a better feel? It’s human nature for us to move towards fun and laughter and steer clear of aggressive and tension-filled environment. Our minds are wired that way. This observation explains the “fight or flight” responses as dictated by the amygdalas in our brains and also serves as the basis behind the media’s and advertisers’ rationale in creating a fun and laughter-filled environment/ambience in most of their products/services. The same can be said of communications. When humour exists, personal connection exists. I understand that there are some of us who are serious by nature. However, from personal experience, I feel that all of us are able to be humourous in some ways, although our style of humour might differ. Some techniques of being funny includes exaggeration, digressing to other irrelevant issues, pretending to be ignorant, use of funny facial expressions and appearing cartoonish. Increasing our creative prowess also enhances our sense of humour by a great deal. Try it and see. Adding this stimulus to our skillset collection is very useful in most aspects of our lives, which includes our relationships with our loved ones, working relations with colleagues/bosses and of course, not to forget its usefulness in the dating scene.
- Storytelling abilities: Another often neglected factor is our ability to narrate a story. I admit that each of us has a different narrative style but I also believe that each of our style works when they are further refined and polished. I always notice that the eyes of the person I am speaking to tend to brighten and stay with mine whenever I narrate a story. It is my personal belief that all if not most of us love stories. If we can provide these stories to others and make it interesting (while staying sincerely honest), it will increase our charisma as a communicator. When this happens, it is hard for others not to like us for the abovementioned reasons, since a tendency to have a favourable impression of storytellers is a natural reaction/response, and not a choice. Some ways to improve in our storytelling abilities include developing a habit to narrate stories to friends, reading more on current happenings and watching more movies while observing how the various scenes are choreographed. In a nutshell, if we are able to make a story come alive visually for our listeners, we can make our listeners come alive. And love us for it as well. It will of course be a plus if we are able to include humour in our storytelling. After all, most of us love interesting AND humourous stories, yes?
- Agreeableness: While I agree that we have to be assertive at times and have our stand made known to other party despite the fact that both of us have different view points, it is important that we do not state our perspectives early in the communication process. Again, this is not an act of deception; it is merely an attempt in establishing better rapport. Once mutual rapport is achieved, we can then put our views forward without expecting any form of upfront rebuttal or rejection. This is similar to the dating scene where we flaunt our strengths rather than our flaws. Therefore, agreeableness is very important in the initial stage of any communication or correspondences (be it phone or email). It is good to note that this is only applicable when the endeavours of others is to help others and for the greater good of mankind. If it is detrimental to the betterment of mankind, we should discourage rather than support them. Although establishing and sustaining strong rapport is essential for those of us who aspire to be great and excellent communicators, ethical and moral considerations are equally if not more important. Ultimately, it’s support that people are looking for, not discouragement. Remember how our friends/parents supported us when we are stressed? This is the support that all of us are looking for in our communication process with others. However, this only applies in social functions and not so in most corporate workplaces. Having all of us agreeing on the first viewpoint put across by our colleagues is counterproductive in the workplace, since agreeableness doesn’t translate into productivity or efficiency in this context. When applied appropriately, this is one stimulus that all successful communication cannot do without.
- Body language: There are some aspects of body language that evoke positive responses from others naturally. This includes leaning our bodies forward to indicate an intense interest in what others are saying (which is also the reason why I wonder there are some people in senior management who prefer to sit cross-legged while leaning back on sofas when they are on the stage engaging a group of audience in a Q & A session. This laid-back manner might backfire since audience might interpret it not as confidence but sheer indifference and/or downright arrogance. Speakers who stand and walk along the stage while talking are more charismatic speakers. While their movement might serve as a distraction, their eye contact and engagement with their audience more than compensate for it), nodding our heads in agreement (to be used in conjunction with the concept of agreeableness above), use of prompters (such as “I understand”, “I see” etc) and other positive body languages. These examples serve as tools which we can employ and use as stimuli to evoke a positive response from others in our communications. Of course, these endeavours must be sincere and not manipulative.
- Personality: Out of all the stimuli, this is the hardest one to describe since every single one of us has a different communicating style. What I can surmise for this stimulus is that in the process of creating a unique personality that is attractive to others, it should encompass all if not most of the above. When we have achieved that, I have the confidence to say we will already be among the best communicators in the world because on the whole, people globally respond positively to the stimuli above.
This is probably the longest article that I have written for this blog.
But I hope that the time and effort that I have put in will aid you in your communication with others and evokes the positive responses from others that will contribute to the success of your communications. If you develop the eleven factors as mentioned above, you should excel as a communicator. Don’t forget to smile and maintain eye contact as this is the first two contact point for all communications, and among the easiest to master.
Remember, how people respond to us is a reaction, and not a choice. But how we provide the right stimuli to achieve positive communications in our lives is a choice.