Don’t Let Mismatched Nonverbals Make a Bad Situation Worse
You know the feeling. You’re about to be the bearer of bad news. It could be at work—maybe you have to deliver a negative performance review, let your team know about budget cuts, or tell a client their project won’t be finished on time. It could in your personal life—perhaps you have to decline an invitation, let the family know Grandpa can’t make his annual visit, or tell your three-year-old you’re out of Goldfish crackers (drama!).
You may just be the messenger, but knowing others will be angry, disappointed, or hurt when they hear the information can cause dread and anxiety. You’re worried because you know sometimes people “shoot the messenger.” And you’re the messenger!
How can you protect yourself?
One way to create safety for yourself, preserve relationships, and help people move past the bad news more quickly is to be clear and congruent in your nonverbal messaging.
Any time you speak, your nonverbal communication needs to align with both the message you’re sending and what’s appropriate for the situation. Whenever there is a mismatch between your verbal and nonverbal communication, people will always trust the nonverbals more than the words. (Side note: That’s why we need a sarcasm font. Sarcasm only works because of nonverbals like tone of voice and rolling eyes.)
When you’re dealing with potentially inflammatory content, the stakes are higher. If you inadvertently send mixed messages, you dramatically increase the likelihood of misunderstandings, tension, derailed progress, and hurt feelings.
It’s like when the driver ahead of you on the freeway has his left turn signal on, and then merges into the right lane. Or maybe I should say, the wrong lane! That’s exactly opposite of what is needed in the situation. And it’s not only annoying, it’s potentially dangerous.
Sometimes you get away with sloppy nonverbals. Other “drivers” may be confused and irritated, but they continue safely down the road. Sometimes you crash and burn.
Let’s make sure you don’t crash and burn. To be nonverbally clear and congruent when giving bad news, use the voice pattern and body language that fit the situation and the message.
Here are two different nonverbal communication modes:
- Straight posture with weight evenly distributed over both feet
- Straight, still head
- Flat voice that curls down at the ends of statements
This set of nonverbals conveys credibility and firmness. It communicates a focus on issues and concepts, rather than on people. It signals one-way communication: directives, imperatives, and delivery of information, instead of conversation.
- Relaxed posture with weight off to one side
- Tilted head that may nod or bob
- Lilting voice that may curl up at the ends of statements
This set of nonverbals conveys openness and friendliness. It is more casual and social. It communicates a focus on building relationships and rapport, as well as a desire for exchange and dialog.
When giving bad news, many people try to soften the message by using Approachable nonverbals. Sometimes they do it to convey empathy. Sometimes they do it because they’re nervous and are nonverbally seeking approval. Sometimes they do it to sound kinder and gentler. They care, and they want the listener to know they care.
However, this sends a mixed message. When you use Approachable voice pattern to deliver a negative message, you’re nonverbally saying, “This is personal. It affects our relationship. And now I want you to unload your emotional reaction onto me.”
I’m going to go way out on a limb and guess that this is exactly the opposite of the message you’re trying to get across!
Because Authoritative nonverbals are issue-oriented and neutral, that voice pattern is the most appropriate to use when delivering bad news. That keeps your personal relationship out of it.
Once you’ve given the news, and are ready to transition to positive, unemotional, or personal territory—for example, sharing a possible solution, offering to help, asking if there are questions, or expressing sympathy—then you can switch to the more Approachable nonverbals.
Many people use only one set of nonverbals for the entire exchange, which means they are nonverbally incongruent half the time! Even worse, some people completely flip the nonverbals around, delivering the bad news with Approachable nonverbals and then becoming impersonal and gruff once the bad news is done. Now you’re back to signaling left when you want to go right.
There is a time and a place for both modes. If you’re only Authoritative, then you come across as uncaring. That’s not good either. But if you deliver the negative part of the message with Approachable nonverbals, you make it personal and pave the way for escalation.
Clean, clear, congruent nonverbals have the added benefit of signaling a change in content. The change in your voice and posture will let the listener know that the bad news is over and we’ve moved on to more positive territory. But more importantly, you can keep your identity and your relationship OUT of the exchange more easily when you’re nonverbally congruent.
For the record, this is not a way to absolve yourself of responsibility for your own choices and actions. If you’ve screwed up and need to apologize, own it. If you’ve made a decision that others don’t like, own it. If you have a dissenting opinion, own it. But when the issue is beyond your control and you are simply delivering the news, don’t own that! Pass on the message, and keep yourself out of it by using the appropriate voice pattern.
When you’ve got a difficult conversation coming up, it’s easy to worry about the words. And certainly, words are important. But if you are inadvertently attaching the negative message to yourself and making it personal, you can wordsmith your delivery all you want… and the right words won’t save you. You need the right nonverbals, too.
Doing this one thing—using Authoritative nonverbals when delivering the negative information and then switching to Approachable when transitioning to neutral or positive information—will help you avoid sending mixed messages… and keep you from crashing and burning! When you can give bad news without getting emotionally embroiled or escalating the situation, and you can cleanly transition to more positive news, your relationships will be healthier and your exchanges will go much more smoothly. It saves time and energy, boosts your confidence, and improves your mental health.
Change your communication, change your life.