Project Daisy: Part IV.
Non-verbal communication challenges when meeting a client.
I met with Daisy for the second and last time a few days ago. There is still work to do, but now I know exactly how to do it, and I expect the project to be finalised this week.
The meeting lasted almost two hours again, but otherwise went well. I explained what I have done and why, what can’t been done (one desired function is not an option in the shopping cart), and which solution I’ve made to achieve that function in a different way.
The agenda was to get feedback on all the web pages and the layout of the shopping cart, activate the shopping cart, and make a detailed list over desired adjustments to each web page so I can action them and finalise the job. I strove to time-manage the meeting professionally while also allowing the client to be human. Daisy is a good client: rational, reliable, to-the-point, and flexible. I felt professional, competent and in charge all the time and went from the meeting with good actionable notes and quick drawings so I know precisely what to do.
After the meeting, I rewrote my notes into a structured summary/to-do list for the final adjustments to-be-done, which I emailed to Daisy. It sums up what we discussed and agreed on, so that it is clear to Daisy what I think she wants me to do. That way she can correct me if I misunderstood anything.
The summary’s ‘Deliverables’ section with due dates serves as my to-do list for the adjustment work, and reminds Daisy about things she’ll need to action first. I think all that works well.
In the meanwhile, under the surface: non-verbal aspects of a meeting
This post is about the non-verbal aspects of communication in a business meeting. I will in a moment switch from the rational business track of the experience to the underlying non-verbal communications track to explain why I find it challenging.
Non-verbal aspects of communication include face expressions, eye contact, timing, silence, tone of voice, gestures, distance, posture, moves, clothing, and showing and demonstrating things, for example. Ambience* (space, smells, sounds, light… ‘vibe’) also impact and blend into communication; although it is not necessarily an actively controlled element of it.
Guides about non-verbal communication usually focus on how to ‘talk right’ with body language to please others. Here is an example – how to manage eye contact:
Giving the right amount of eye contact is a critical factor in developing rapport. You don’t want to give too much or too little. Too much eye contact is signalling the wrong thing (aggression or sexual interest). Too little eye contact can suggest that you are not interested. It’s a complex issue, but for most people, looking them in the eye about a third of the time works well and is about right.
In other words, getting eye contact right in a conversation requires some attention if you don’t intuitively know how to do it right.
Also: eye contact can be mesmerising. It can drain the attention so it is hard to focus on essential issues (my experience – I found no guides about that).
Besides eye contact, advice about non-verbal communication typically defines wanted and unwanted body postures, nervous habits (to maximise peoples’ anxieties, I suppose), timing, greetings and movement – the goal always being to appropriately manipulate the audience / employer / conversation partner.
I would like to talk about cognitive overload*, which is my main challenge with non-verbal communication.
I intuitively use body language to communicate, for example in the traffic – That is easy. However, I am not so good at multi-tasking in communication. When I am in verbal mode then I prefer to concentrate on communicating words and not all the other stuff (smiling, face expressions, eye contact).
Verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication require very different types of attention and processing. If the brain was a computer then I would say that verbal and non-verbal communication require separate applications to run; each being of the type that make heavy use of working memory and occasionally make other programmes crash.
Talk is labour intensive: find the right words, structure the message, listen, process and evaluate the other person’s talk, decode and re-process sentences if they sound like nonsense at first, maintain a pleasant turn-taking balance between listening and talking, vary intonation to support the clarity and quality, be polite, and in a professional meeting: manage the time without appearing rushed.
When a person stares directly into my eyes while I try to do all that, I feel invaded and loose my concentration. I work harder to listen and talk and keep my inputs on track. Each time a face expression requires a response from me, I am taken out of my flow. Each time the voice of the person I listen to swings up in a dramatic high pitch for effect (some women tend to do that in conversations; maybe to counter boredom;-) it hurts my ears and shocks me for a few seconds. It is bearable for a while. However, stress and confusion gradually accumulates during the encounter.
At some point (typically after about 40 minutes on a good day) I reach my max capacity for direct face to face communication. Discomfort, friction and about-to-snap desperation loom inside while I keep my act together and continue to try to behave professionally. Dead tired and secretly traumatised, I just want to return to my own planet**. I’ll name that state of mind ‘unsustainable alien, but still functional’.
That is what I find challenging about the non-verbal aspects of communications in a meeting: the invisible, accumulating overload that after a while makes the duration of the meeting feel like a ticking bomb.
Post-meeting recovery phase
The meeting eventually finished, and I reasoned that it went well. Daisy seemed happy and kept chatting to me while I walked towards the door, which is a good sign (although at that point in time, it made me want to scream and run). I’d got all the information I needed written neatly down and knew how to move forward. I was proud of my professionalism.
I knew however, when I walked down the staircase, that I was heading into the high risk zone for snapping into unreasonable behaviour later in the evening. Risk source: nerve wreck mode. Odds were high that some tiny interpersonal friction could make the whole world crack and spiral into pointless relationship dramas… The last thing in the world I want.
The cure for communication overload is simple, yet can be out of reach: leave me alone! It takes me at least a day of peace & quiet solitude to recover from a meeting or other intensive communication.
Non-verbal communication coping strategies
I wanted to write about non-verbal aspects of communication although it brings on the blogging dilemma of privacy and relevance because to me it is one of the major challenges in meetings. Meetings are an essential project management tool; vital to self-employment and required in many jobs too.
To some people, non-verbal communication does not require deliberate strategies; it is as intuitive as breathing. However if you, like me, feel that non-verbal aspects of communication tend to generate tension and drain your mental energy, then here comes some coping strategies that I find useful.
1. Bring organisation and diversion tools to a meeting
Agenda, pen and notebook serve as organisation and diversion tools. They help me to create an overview and manage the time, and give small breaks from direct face to face communication because I can look at my papers and demonstrate what I mean with quick drawings and tables.
Writing and drawing assists my memory (later), helps create and maintain structure, creates variety and even makes the meeting more entertaining. A laptop with Internet connection is also great to divert the attention from body language to work content, especially when the job is to revamp a website.
2. Non-verbal communication cheats and compromises
People expect eye contact, but can’t really tell the difference between direct eye contact and a gaze on a point in their face. I often look at the nose or mouth when I adjust to a person or start to get tired; it has a much ‘lighter’ impact on my concentration than direct eye contact.
I reserve direct eye contact for the strategically important phases of the conversation, like in the beginning and when reassurance of attention is called for. The rest of the time I allow myself to relax and concentrate on listening or talking, pretty much ignoring dramatic face expressions and intrusive eye contact. I do however try to signal with my expression, questions and comments that I am listening and responsive.
If I don’t look, it doesn’t mean that I don’t listen, quite the contrary: I listen best that way. If I look straight into your eyes while you talk and try to mirror and respond to your face expressions, then I am most likely focused on that and not on listening to you.
(For those who prefer a more technical solution, check out BokitoViewers Direct Eye Contact Prevention Glasses)***.
3. Recovery time and realistic expectations
Since I know from experience that I’ll need a solitaire recovery period after a meeting, I schedule ‘no direct human contact’ for the rest of the day (= computer time, usually). I avoid plans and expectations for the next day if I can. If I can’t avoid people then I adjust my expectations accordingly: the day is set up to fail, so anything that goes well is a surprise bonus, and anything that doesn’t is forgivable.
Ps. Note about the timing: this post was started last week and just finished now. Yes, I am too slow to finish things. Work speed and time management is another topic I plan to take up in the ‘near’ future 😉
Read more: Journaling Project Daisy.
*I just found the expression and think that is what it is; however I am not a professional in this regard and may not be using the right term. I called it attention drain right before I found this term; that is another perspective on it.
**A metaphor for needing social withdrawal and mental rest, if any doubt.