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Symbolic Communication 550 px

Good communication with ourselves and others is a fundamental piece of a successful life. In coaching and in leadership workshops, communication is the most challenging topic; it’s also one that’s easy to work on. We can get better at getting our point across.

Back in 1972, Professor Albert Mehrabian said that our message is 7% words, 38% voice, and 54% body language. The only important thing to remember here is that our nonverbal communication has a huge influence on our message.

Nonverbal communication includes facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. If I say “I am so glad to be here” in a sarcastic tone while rolling my eyes and looking at my watch, you won’t believe my words. That’s so interesting! If the nonverbal and verbal messages are not aligned, then we go with the nonverbal message! Our words have no meaning when the nonverbal message contradicts them!

We want to be careful with the words that we use; however, we also need to pay close attention to our nonverbal messages. Crossed arms and stern looks can make us appear unapproachable or judgmental. If we deliver bad news while smiling, we send a very confusing message. It’s important that we intentionally align our verbal and nonverbal messages.

There is a third way that we communicate other than verbally and nonverbally; it is symbolic. We do a whole lot of communicating symbolically with our clothes, jewelry, shoes, hairstyles, backpacks, water bottles, fingernails, cars, and even our homes. We are telling the world something about ourselves with every symbolic choice that we make.

It’s important that our symbolic messages are intentional and appropriate. We cannot ignore the fact that we tell people about our commitment to a job with our clothes. If I show up to work in wrinkled clothes with my shirt untucked and hair that looks like I just tumbled out of bed, then I am sending the message that I’m not professional and don’t take my job seriously. That message might not be entirely true, but it’s still the message that I’m sending.

It’s also a good idea to pay attention to how your things (e.g., clothes, jewelry, bags) make you feel. You even send symbolic messages to yourself.

Speaking of talking to yourself, we all have a little voice in our head. How that voice talks to us can make a huge impact on our confidence and self-esteem. Negative self-talk can be a very destructive force. There are some things that we can do to improve the way we talk to ourselves.

Begin by asking yourself if you would talk that way to a friend. Would you say, “You are stupid and incompetent!” to someone you care about? Of course not! If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, then don’t say it to yourself.

Studies have shown that talking to yourself using “you” or your name as if talking to a friend increases confidence, performance, and anxiety. For example, instead of “I can do this!”, I say, “Kathy, you can do this!” It’s an easy shift to make. No one knows exactly why this works, but it does, so let’s run with it.

Talking to ourselves as we would to a friend and using “you” and our names help to put us in an observer role, which is another way to battle negative self-talk. In one study, psychologists had people stand in the mirror and comment on themselves. If a person said, “I am a fat blob with a jiggly belly,” the researchers would ask them to state factual information as an observer. The participant could say, “I have a round abdomen.” Observing factually leads to action more often than negative self-talk does.

Lastly, we can name our inner voice. In coaching, we call it a Gremlin, and it seems intent on sabotaging our efforts. Many times, our Gremlins are trying to keep us safe. My Gremlin might say, “Don’t put in a proposal for that job. You won’t get it, anyway.” It’s trying to save me the pain and disappointment that I would experience if I didn’t get it. I can tell my Gremlin, “Thanks! I know you are trying to save me some emotional pain and disappointment, but I’ve got this! If I don’t get it, it will be OK.”

The first step in communicating is becoming aware of the different ways that we send messages to ourselves and others. The second step is to be intentional in the message and the way that we deliver it. This perspective gives “Watch your language!” a whole new meaning.

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