In the book by Alex Pentland called Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, research reveals four key honest social signals during business conversations: influence, mimicry, activity and consistency.

Consistency refers to the variability of your speech and movements during a conversation. When you’re focused, your speech and movements are smooth and regular. And when you experience multiple simultaneous thoughts or emotions, your speech becomes jerky, unevenly accented and paced. Consistency is therefore a measure of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others.

If you have to process thoughts, you may hesitate and slow down. But when you’re sure and convinced, you speak with smooth confidence and without variability.

Researchers have found that consistency in emphasis yields better results in salary negotiations and business pitches. But consistent emphasis is not always a good thing. While it indicates focus and determination, it’s the opposite of what you want as a listener or helper.

In studies of sales inquiries, researchers found that variability in emphasis, coupled with amount of listening time, accurately predicted a sales call’s success or failure.

Variability and pace signal your openness to others’ contributions, while consistency indicates you’ve made up your mind.

I come up against this dynamic in many of the successful people I coach. That is, they don’t shift their social signals in order to be perceived as a listener and helper. They come across as dominant, and highly influential, but not open. While they say they want to help, they give off signals of wanting to influence.

Better Leadership Communication

Successful people and effective leaders do more than just listen. They recognize that observing patterns of unconscious social signaling offers a window into a group’s dynamics. They can detect when a group is moving toward problems like groupthink or polarization.

Language and arguments matter, of course, but sometimes they matter surprisingly little. We’re not as rational as we’d like to believe. If you’re not reading the social signals, you may be missing out on important information.

Our conscious and unconscious communication channels are likely to be enmeshed and intertwined. The successful communicator can pick up and elaborate on interaction patterns and help groups function more effectively.

Unfortunately, we tend to over-rely on digital exchanges, but memos and emails are no match for face-to-face contact. Most of us recognize this fact. Perhaps video technology will overcome some of technology’s inherent problems.

Always remember that communication is socially situated. The more we recognize that discussions are not limited to words and part of a larger social dialogue, the more successfully we’ll work together.

What’s your opinion on how we can use social signals to communicate better? I’d love to hear your opinion on this. In the meantime, you can reach me here or on LinkedIn.