It’s Monday morning and you open up a ‘Zoom’ virtual video chat with a work colleague with a smile on your face, gently enquiring, “Good morning, how are you?”. Your colleague snaps back, “I AM… FINE!!”, using a loud tone that has an edge to it. Unless this is normal (baseline) behaviour for this person then you would probably be taken back a little. Imagine that this was a response that you received to your greeting… reflect for a second about how you might feel, and what would go through your mind?
You may feel concerned; maybe judging that your colleague is upset or angry about something that has just happened? Maybe they are angry at you for calling them and asking how they are when you are fully aware that they are going through a difficult time? You may even be angry yourself, due to the rudeness of the response to your friendly greeting?
You may quickly reflect on the timing and context of your video call. Is it too early in the morning, before the normal start time for the working day? Was it not pre-planned? What has gone before? Did you send them an email criticising their performance? Was there a previous call that ended on a bad note? And so on.
Ok… with this little 7-second exchange it may be a little obvious that something is not right from the response, though often the clues that something is wrong are more subtle and we can miss them for several reasons, including these:
- We aren’t paying attention – not listening and/or watching the other person during the conversation. See here for levels of attentiveness.
- We are in ‘broadcast mode’ – keen to get to what we want to say and we have no interest in what the other person says or displays.
- We don’t have the skills – the abilities to recognise what others might be thinking and feeling from their multiple communication channels (facial expressions, body language, voice, verbal style, language and the psychophysiological signals).
These first two are primarily about attitude and focus… or mindset.
Develop a curious mindset
If you are genuinely interested in other people, then you will have a natural instinct to listen and watch others so you can understand them at multiple levels. You will be looking below the surface of the words and be trying to establish what they are feeling and thing, even what values and beliefs they hold. This iceberg model illustrates this depth of understanding:
If you don’t have this natural ability then you may need to work hard at developing a mindset of curiosity and empathy, to challenge yourself to work out how they are feeling and why they are saying what they are saying; rather than simply attempting to get your opinion across, prove you are right, and/or superficially judging them, or their opinions.
The third point in the earlier list is about having the skills to read other people’s behaviour. This can be learned.
Take a multiple-channel approach
The big tip is that you need to take account of all the information coming in from the six communication channels:
If we return to the first 7 seconds of the Zoom exchange, then we have access to 5½ channels (we can only usually see the top half of the body). So the clues that may be of interest in the three words, “I am fine”, are outlined below.
Be careful here though… don’t rely on one indicator… we have six channels so you can corroborate what you are hearing/seeing across channels. You must take a hypothesis-driven approach and test your assumptions with other probes/questions if it is appropriate. Consider how their behaviour aligns with the “ABC’s” of Behaviour Analysis:
- what they are saying (the ‘Account),
- their normal style (their ‘Baseline’), and
- what is going on around them (the “Context’).
- Tiny head nods ‘yes’ that reinforce the affirmative message, or
- Tiny head shakes ‘No’ that contradict the positive statement ‘I am fine’.
- Small, single-sided shoulder shrugs – tiny signals (or ‘leakage’) that suggest that a person may have no confidence in the words they are saying simultaneously.
- Darkening or reddening in facial skin tone (difficult with darker skin tones) or perspiration – may signal stress or anger. Or they could have just completed an exercise routine.
- Does the facial expression give clues to the emotion they are feeling? Facial expressions are universal (see here).
- These emotions can leak in less than half a second when others are trying to hide them. These are called micro facial expressions – blink and you may miss them. See here for more about the myths and science around the universality of facial expressions.
- If a person isn’t fine and is feeling a little sad then this has two reliable signals – often the inner brows will raise and the mouth corners will lower. See here for more on genuine and fake sadness.
- The way the words “I am fine” are said can give you good clues too.
- Volume lowered can mean a person is sad, unsure or lying about their feelings. It can also mean they are struggling with technology and just want to be heard over Zoom on their iPad (this is the “C” in the ABCs).
- Pitch higher than normal can mean a person is stressed (anger or fear?) or lying.
Although the word ‘lying’ is used here, we shouldn’t necessarily associate that with bad intent. People may lie about how they are feeling for many reasons:
- Privacy – they want to keep it to themselves.
- Time – they may only have a short time on this Zoom call and so may not wish to open up a deeper discussion.
- Relationship factor – they don’t feel close enough to you to talk about their troubles. They may not trust you.
And finally… it’s not all about you!
Sometimes a person’s emotions might be triggered by something other than the immediate Zoom call with you. It could be relating to a previous event, a thought, or a feeling about someone else. So tread carefully, be empathic and stay curious.