If you strive for better communication at work, you’d be wise to learn about the social signals you transmit when you have a conversation with someone. It’s phenomenal when you think about it. We unconsciously communicate with one another in many other ways besides our words. Even before others utter a word, we intuit how they feel.

Evidently the social signals we give off were all we had to communicate as primitive human beings, before we invented language. And these behaviors continue to be expressed even though we think we’re conversing with words.

What are these social signals and how can we detect them and even measure them, to predict conversation outcomes?

Researchers are now using sensing technology (sociometers) to detect key signaling behaviors — including activity levels, mimicry, synchrony, pace and physical distance — in face-to-face conversations.

Alex Pentland and MIT colleagues have developed the sociometer, which was further perfected by Ben Waber and fellow MIT alumni who founded Sociometric Solutions. The device is worn around the neck like an ID badge, and it captures tone of voice, activity level and location. While it does not record actual words, it can detect and/or measure:

  • Who you talk to, how often and for how long
  • Whether two speakers are face to face or turned away from each other
  • An interaction’s energy level
  • Levels of engagement

We may not perceive these social signals unless we’re looking for them. When we do become aware of them, they provide a very effective window into people’s intentions, goals and values. Using the sociometer, scientists can accurately predict the outcomes of social situations, job interviews and even salary negotiations.

Effective communicators are more sensitive to social signals, using them to more fully understand social context and influence. They pay careful attention to signal patterns within their social networks, harvesting individual members’ knowledge and capturing the “wisdom of the crowd” to improve performance, decision-making and project management.

In my work as a coach, I’ve been trained to detect subtle clues to how someone might be thinking or feeling. Not everyone does this naturally, but it is something that we can all learn to do.

By learning about four basic social signals we become more attuned to them in our everyday conversations, as I’ll explain in my next post. What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion on this. In the meantime, you can reach me here or on LinkedIn.