How can you communicate better? The way to improve business communication skills is to become adept at detecting four kinds of social signals that go on during conversations. They provide clues to what others are thinking and feeling.

Successful people are great communicators who recognize that conversations are part of an evolving social process. They aren’t just skilled listeners; they’re attuned to subtle social signals that are more revealing than words alone — and they use them to their advantage.

We’re more connected than ever before. The ability to reach out and communicate with people around the globe has never been more accessible. But are we paying attention to key signals that improve our understanding?

Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call, and only 20 percent had regular access to communications. Today, 70 percent can place a phone call or send a text message. Almost every stratum of society is now connected.

In spite of all this easy access, I’ve noticed in my business contacts, we often fail to truly connect. If we look at unproductive meetings, failed sales pitches, fruitless negotiations and emails that spark firestorms, it’s easy to see that we’re not always skilled communicators. Despite technological advances in communication, our ability to detect social context has deteriorated.

Fifty years of research reveals that words play only a small role in conveying meaning. Facial and other nonverbal expressions are larger contributors. And over the last decade, scientists have found that social signals are a significant, yet largely unexplored, communication channel.

Social Channels

Social communication channels profoundly influence our major decisions, even though we’re usually unaware of them. These signals are produced unconsciously, and as such they’re supremely honest. As Alex Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab explains in his book, Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World:

Honest Signals comes from a new and emerging science, called network science, that tries to understand people in the context of their social networks rather than viewing them as isolated individuals… Recent advances in wireless communications and digital sensors have made it now possible to observe natural, everyday human behavior at a level of detail that was previously unattainable.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve been learning about social signals. When you become aware of them, they can shift your conversations to have more impact. Stay tuned.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion on this. In the meantime, you can reach me here or on LinkedIn.