Being Hung. . . up on X Factor Politics and Body Language Myths

Throughout the analysis to the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, the subject of ‘body language‘ or non-verbal communication has dominated. Faced with the first presidential style leaders’ debates, it’s often the simplest most televisual form of analysis. So, why discuss politics or policies when we can be discussing ties, smiles and hand gestures? The whole spectacle seems to have placed hair-line recession far higher on out list of priorities than global recession. So as the three leading men took to the stage and sound like the new cast of ‘The Last Of the Summer Wine’ it’s all became rather ‘X-Factored’.  When when faced with a buffet of mediocrity, the one with the nice smile gets the vote. It doesn’t matter that they have a voice that sounds like the wind whistling through an aardvark’s rectum. Better than the rest is not always that much of an endorsement when there’s not much on offer.

Part of the problem with the media’s obsession with body language is that it easily passes for ‘scientific’ analysis. Unfortunately this is at the expense of more serious, evidence-based analysis. It’s also partly due to fakesperts who have either not read or not understood the research available on non-verbal communication. What happens is that a misunderstanding is so routinely and frequently passed off as ‘fact’ that it has been accepted. I refer of course to the 7% myth.  I’ve blogged about this on several occasions and there’s not a week goes by tha some ‘expert’ repeats it on twitter, with all the originality of a bigot, who regurgitates, parrot-fashion, the old unfounded, unsupported myths of prejudice.

So let’s be clear.  Non-verbal communication does NOT account for just 7% of any communication. Just try watching a foreign language film without subtitles. Would you really understand 93% of the film? Non-verbals take precedent when we are forming a first impression. So for instance, in the first leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg’s non-verbal communication was probably more important than Brown’s or Cameron’s. This is mainly because he was the least known of the three due to lesser media coverage. It helps to explain why he did so well in the first debate. He’d made a really good first impression. In the following weeks, we’d already formed a first impression and so his words became more important, and the ‘nice bloke’ style wasn’t as impressive.

Non-verbal communication is also important when trying to decide whether someone is lying. If there’s a mismatch between words and gestures we suspect that someone is lying or trying to hide something. Now the cynical might argue that using body language to try to decide whether a politician is lying is a pretty redundant activity.

Non-verbal communication is also very context dependent. So for instance, we tend to behave quite differently with family and friends as we do with work colleagues or at an interview. Now put on the spot-light, turn on a few cameras, invite an audience and realise that you won’t be seeing natural non-verbal indicators of private thoughts or personality traits. Instead you will see the different levels of ability in media training. But coping well in front of the camera doesn’t necessarily make a good Prime Minister. However, it is a good skill for would be politicians. Far from helping us to see the truth, good media training can help to control and obscure it.

If you’ve ever seen those confessional chat shows you’ll notice that the guests are often placed centre stage on a chair without arms. So they are forced to do something with their hands. If they fold their arms to feel more comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are being defensive and lying. It may just mean that they feel at a loss what to do with their arms because there are no arms on the chairs. The fact that they are caught out lying has little to do with ‘reading the body language’. Of course someone on the stage is lying.  That’s the whole point orf the show. But let’s not pretend that the ‘expert’could tell from a producer-contrived defensive geature.  Now consider the leaders’ debates. All three stood at a podium and could grip the sides. This certainly helps control the upper body. So people who want to present themselves as truthful or calmer will make fewer and smaller upper body gestures. Too little moving of the arms and it comes across as disinterest. Too much waving of the arms and it looks like someone who needs to get a grip (on themselves, and on the podium). Analysing the three leaders and David Cameron was more controlled in his upper body, compared to when he is out on the streets in his shirt sleeves. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg used bigger gestures so that their hands were visible in close-up shots. Cameron’s were not. Now how you read this depends on your politic beliefs since you interpret everything through the filters of your attitudes.

Smiling often increases likability but only if it’s a genuine smile. Gordon Brown’s smile looks forced or nervous. Or else it was  attempt to seem less dour and serious as he has been portrayed in the media. So we saw lots of Gordon Brown’s teeth. However, we barely got to peek inside David Cameron’s mouth. He was quite tight-lipped. Clearly smiling wasn’t so important in this case. So whereas Brown did more smiling or shaking his head when challenged, Cameron did more brow furrowing, which could mean he didn’t agree or he didn’t understand. Again the interpretations come down to your political persuasion.

Nick Clegg perhaps came across as the most ‘human’  and natural of the three. He was less evasive and did answer questions the most directly. However, none of that was by chance. There were lot’s of techniques involved designed to create that impression.  Although by the third debate there were shades of ‘game show host’ in his performance.  By contrast  Cameron throughout each  debate avoided answering direct questions put to him. Brown’s often resorted to  repeating facts and figures almost like as mantra. I suspect some people will never want to heat the phrase ‘tax credits’ ever again. A key strength of both Clegg and Cameron was that they both used simpler terminology whereas Brown was more wordy. For instance, Brown referred to ‘remuneration’ when they other two were more likely to refer to ‘pay’. In a fast paced debated, people often don’t listen, they scan for key words that match or conflict with existing attitudes.

Post-debate analysis  showed that those surveyed in the studio responded favourably when key words were mentioned. So for instance when Cameron mentioned ‘discipline in the classroom’, there was a peak in audience ratings.  In some ways it showed that people were voting with their attitudes.  If you ask someone to rate a like or dislike or something then an attitude is formed on limited information very quickly.  Key buzz words and phrases are far easier than statitistics  to process in the context of existing attitudes. Except when the figures were soundbyte simplifications such as ‘£700 back in your pocket’.

In the first debate Nick Clegg was very diligent in remembering names and making visual context with the audience. However after having established contact he made contact with the TV audience by looking into the camera. This made his approach appear more personal. Cameron followed this lead and adopted this approach more after the first debate although his demeanor was more formal than Clegg’s. By contrast Gordon Brown addressed the studio audience and his opponents on the stage, which although this would have been more personal for the studio audience it was less so for the TV audience. Simply put both Clegg and Cameron made more ‘eye contact’ with the TV audience.

Another interesting point that I have not seen discussed is the stage positions throughout the debates. Gordon Brown was the only leader not to occupy the centre stage. He appeared in the same place throughout the three debates. He also moved his upper body from side to side more that the other two. It’s possible that Brown did not move position from week to week because having his opponents on his right was better for him on account of his blindness in the left eye.  During the first debate, relative newcomer Clegg occupied centre stage which again may have contributed to his high ratings. Context is everything when interpreting non-verbal communication.

Finally, we need to consider the attitudes we held prior to the debates. This will have coloured our expectations and perceptions. It’s become a common phrase in everyday conversation that ‘we need a change’ and Clegg and Cameron in their opposition roles were better placed to work the word ‘change’ into their answers. Brown begun from a defensive position although he did ‘go on the offensive’ throughout the three debates. The problem is that he appealed to ‘finish the job’ and to some this may have been interpreted as ‘more of the same’. It was also notable during the post-debate analysis that those surveyed liked it least when the leaders ‘attacked’ each other. So Brown’s strategy didn’t resonate with the audience whereas Clegg’s ‘let’s work together’ did. Common perceptions of the House of Commons is of a bunch of school children fighting in the playground (and stealing from the tuck shop). Clegg’s appeal to work together to ‘sort out the mess we’re in’ struck a chord that things could be a real difference. However, ‘working together’ and ‘hung parliament’ have very different connotations following lots of media scaremongering.

So did the ‘Browny, Cammy, Cleggy’ show really  enlighten or inform or did it merely entertain? Was it all about the style and soundbyte substance? Although there were appeals to values during the debates, nothing was particularly well articulated instead relying on the old chestnut of ‘family values’. Anyone who actually belongs to a family will know that families aren’t all they are cracked up to be. It’s just a short-hand way of saying ‘wholesome and decent’ and often  a back-door to sneak in sexism and homophobia.

Values are important. They are certainly far  more important than body language debates. Out attitudes support our values and they in turn should inform our politics. Our opinion that they have the X Factor (or not) shouldn’t be the defining quality. We don’t even have to like them, we just have to chose the candidate that represents the party that most closely matches our vision of the world – our values. And if we happen to face a parliament that’s well hung, let’s not get too excited! And as for your vote, it’s not just having one that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.

For quizzes to help you decide how to use your vote see:

For more on the 7% myth see:

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The Viewing Influences the Doing: Coping With Big Jobs & Distorted Perceptions of Time

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

The viewing influences the doing and vice versa

How you view the world influences what you do in the world and vice versa.

Big Jobs
So a huge pile of paperwork seems insurmountable and may cause you to think ‘I’ll never get through that’. And of course, for as long as you see it as a huge, insurmountable pile of paperwork, then you will struggle. However if you break it down into a series of small, manageable piles of paperwork, you perception of the task will change.

Stress
When you are under stress, your perceptions are distorted, including your perception of time. You will underestimate what you can achieve in a given time and you’ll overestimate the amount of time a task will take. The problem is, you don’t really have an accurate idea of how long the task will take – you’re just guessing. What’s more, your guess is negatively distorted.

Accurate Data
There is only one way to counter your distorted perception of time and that it to get some accurate information. This is where the idea of personal development experiments comes in useful. Firstly, break the large task in to smaller, manageable chunks and then time yourself to see how long it takes to complete one chunk and make a note of this. Do this for a second equally sized chunk and make a note of the time, and again for a third chunk. If you add the times up and divide by three, you’ll get a more accurate (average) timing per chunk. This will allow you to make a more precise assessment of how long the whole task will take to complete.

Positive Outcomes

By this time your stress level will have decreased too and your perception of the task will have changed. Doing will have influenced the viewing and now you’ll have a new reference point on which to base future experiences and you will have completed part of the task too.

Links:

Beating Stress: Balancing the Daily Hassles and Uplifts

We often say that ‘bad news comes in threes’ but do not seem to have a corresponding rule for good news.

The ‘hassles and uplifts’ theory of stress argues that it’s the little things in life that tend to grind us down, such a miserable shopkeepers, someone ‘cutting us up’ in traffic, queue jumpers, or grey skies.

By contrast, it’s the little things that tend to ‘make our day’ such as compliments, a smile from the shop keeper, good manners and common courtesy, a few rays of sunshine, someone giving up their seat on the bus or letting you in the queue or a particularly good cappuccino.

At the end of each day we do a mental balance sheet. If the petty hassles and niggles outweigh the little uplifts, we say we’ve had a bad day. If the uplifts outweigh the hassles, we say we’ve had a good day. The great thing about this is that we can take control and turn stressful days around by creating more uplifts for ourselves.

However, the process starts by retuning our perceptual filters to take stock of good stuff to balance the pessimistic prophecy that bad things come in threes. Here’s how:

Links:

A Short Course in Personal Development: Psychological Skills for Elite Performance

The four basic psychological skills for elite performance are:  relaxation; goal-setting; self-talk; and creative visualization. Here are three exercises utilizing these skills. Practised regularly they will support and enhance personal development and elite performance:

(i) Relaxation: Our ability to control our stress response has a profound effect on human performance and how we process information.

(ii) Self-Talk: The way we talk to ourselves – our inner dialogue – creates self-imposed limitations for how we view the world and what we do in the world.

(iii) Goal-setting & Visualization: This simple exercise is used by top athletes and uses creative visualization to support goal setting to create a sense of having already achieved the goal. It’s a good way to build and maintain motivation.

I use the concept of ‘personal experiments’ with coaching clients. This approach allows us to try techniques on for size, with no intrinsic sense of failure. We simply commit to the techniques for a given period of time (say two to four weeks) to allow ourselves to collect data. So give them a go and assess the results (and feel free to post any feedback). For some information, see the link to my self-help book below.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Stress, Damned Stress & Perceptions of Stress

Participating in a phone-in this morning (BBC Five Live with Nicky Campbell) on stress I was struck by the enormous range in capacity that people have when coping with stressful lives. This is perhaps not surprising since all human abilities show a complete spectrum of skill level. It’s also true that perception plays an important part in how we cope.

Inevitably, an discussion on stress becomes like a poker game of the  ‘I’ll see your disaster and raise you a catastrophe‘ variety. However, stress is not a level playing field. Our ways of reacting to stress and coping with stress depend to a great extent on learning, such as how parents, family and friends cope with stress and whether we have inherited a pessimistic or optimistic outlook on life. It’s also our unique pattern of life events has also pre-disposed us to view stress in different ways.

The main thing that emerged from the phone-in was that sometimes it only look a brief respite from overwhelming stress to make things seem more manageable. It’s often the little things in life that make us happy and make difficult times more bearable. So, people might say that they need a ‘bloody good holiday’ when sometimes a cup of tea and a chat would do the trick.

It’s important to recognise that we all need a bit of stress in our lives to get us performing at our best. The good stress is called eustress.  We talk about an ‘adrenaline rush’ that carries us through difficult times. The problem is that there is a tipping point. A little bit of stress improves performance but high levels of stress have a detrimental effect. The ‘bad’ stress is distress.

One of the things that we can do for ourselves is to build in little breaks throughout the day and take time out (away from our stressors) and just take some long, slow deep breaths. This cuts against the stress cycle and can take the edge off things. We instinctively do it every time we brace ourselves for a difficult task and ‘take a deep breath’. We do this to take the edge of our stress and get it back with in productive limits.

One thing we can do for others is to listen without feeling the need to trump their stress with tales of your own. Sometimes people just want to be heard. So do something nice for someone and just listen for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fighter pilot listening to someone talk about a difficult boss. Just because you have experienced more stress than they can possibly imagine, that doesn’t take anything away from their own distress. In fact, there’s nothing worse than being told ‘you problems are nothing’. It only adds to the stress.

Sometimes people feel guilty for feeling tired and stressed out especially when others are depending on them. However, it’s not self-centred to need a break: it’s human and it makes good sense. Think of aeroplane emergencies. People are told to put on their own masks before they help their children. In short, you look after yourself first so that you are better equipped to take care of others.

Overall, the thing about stress is that we can learn to cope in ways that are more productive and that starts with taking a more strategic approach and building in relaxation to your schedule (however brief) whether or not you think you need it. So practising a few breathing exercises, getting some fresh air, having a cop of tea and a chat.  The secret is to work out what works for you (and your circumstances) and then practice it, almost religiously, everyday. The more we practice the more deeply conditioned the response becomes. In short, these little safety valves become habits. Getting into the habit of improving your response to stress on a day-to-day basis can automatically help you be better prepared when faced with tough situations.

Links:

Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Communication Tips in Relationships

All too often it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing communication skills as a bunch and tips, tools and techniques for getting our own personal message across. Well in part that is true, but it’s only half of the story.

Essentially communication is about an exchange of perspectives; a coming together of differing personal views of the world. It’s not just about talking; it’s about listening too. Listening may be thought of as a passive process, just nodding, smiling and hmm-ing until it’s our turn to ‘communicate’. However, the way you listen will determine whether anyone will want to talk to you. And when we speak it’s often it’s not what we say but how we say it that determines whether or not other people will hear us. The way we present our messages will increase the chances that someone will actually listen to us.
We often hear a lot about how it’s good to talk in relationships but when it’s time to talk about problems in relationships, a common error is to lump all your petty niggles and resentments into one big formless heap and then dump that on to a friend, partner or loved one. The reason for this is simple. All too often we are encouraged to engage in battlefield communications – the battle of the sexes – where the winner takes it all! There is an art to communication and the first thing to decide is what your message is; what do you want to get across. Different types of communication like books, plays, films and so on all do through an editing process in the hope that they will be received in the best possible light. If both partners ‘edit’ their message and stick to the most important issues, then it will also, most likely, be easier to listen to.

My recommendations for clear communication tend to work well when used together, and of course you need to be flexible and adapt them to your own particular needs and the needs of the other person, and the relationship. A number of these suggestions are taken from my book Sex, Lies & Stereotypes.

Here they are:

Think partnership
If your relationship is a partnership then you should aim for a win-win situation. It should not be a zero-sum game, so that one partner benefits at the expense of the other. It is important that you really make an effort to see things for each other’s perspective. Be creative in solutions. Think ‘outside of the box’. If you both win, the relationship wins doubly so.

Pick the right moment
Don’t be tempted to dive in, no matter the time or place. Agree on a time and place to discuss important matters when you are not likely to be disturbed or distracted. Again, think partnership. It needs to be a time and place that works for both of you, relatively free from stress and private. You both need to feel safe to disclose your intimate thoughts. So, don’t pick the moment your partner wants to watch his/her favourite programme, or when you are on the dance floor at a nightclub, or in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket.

Own your statements
When dealing with negative or difficult issues you need to own your statements. There is a big difference between ‘I feel as if’ and ‘you make me feel’. If you introduce a sense of blame, the whole discussion becomes a game of ‘emotional poker’ with I’ll raise your ‘hurt feelings’, and see you a ‘really make me sick’. It’s not meant to be a competition.

The behaviour is not the person
It is far easier for a person to change their behaviour than to change their whole self. Once you’ve said ‘You really make me sick’, there isn’t really anything else left to say, is there? If on the receiving end, you might want to say ‘In what specific ways do I make you sick?’ Prompt for examples, ask for evidence. However, if the person says ‘I don’t like it when you. . .’ or say how you feel when a particular behaviour occurs. This way you cut to the chase and immediately start talking about the important stuff. Of course, it doesn’t have to be something negative. Instead of saying ‘You are useless at foreplay’, you could say what you do like, for instance ‘I like it when you do x, y and z. (Hmmm! Can’t beat a bit of x,y & z). Say how good you feel. Psychologically, people respond much better to positive reinforcement, such as praise, than they do to negative feedback such as ‘put downs’. Even ‘I really appreciate it when you get up to put the cat out’!

Observations not judgements
Don’t make sweeping generalised judgements about what things do or don’t mean. Don’t start sentences with ‘If you loved me’ or ‘If you cared’. These are not facts. They are your perceptions. Consider this statement ‘You don’t care whether or not I get any sexual satisfaction, you just think about yourself’. All wrapped up in one statement is ‘caring’, ‘selfishness’, and ‘sexual satisfaction’. You may end up arguing about caring and selfishness when you really should be discussing sexual satisfaction. Make factual observations not value judgements.

Give specific feedback based on observations
Words like ‘always’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘never’ are all rather vague and leave things wide open for disagreement. Again, it is all about different perspectives. You need to put things into context and be more specific. It then becomes easier to get side tracked by arguing over the terms and frequencies rather than discussing the real issues.

Share ideas or offer alternatives, rather than make demands or give advice.
Most people respond better if they have a sense on input or investment in a course of action. Nobody likes being told what to do. It’s all about perspectives again. Discussing options should be the first step in any ‘negotiation’. This communicates the idea that you value the other person’s point of view. Psychologically, there will be a greater sense of ownership of an idea for both people if they have both contributed to it.

Too much, Too Soon. Don’t go for feedback overload
When material has a high emotional content, it often takes us a little longer to process. So if a partner discloses something, you may say the first thing that comes into your head, or use it as a signal to open up the floodgates, releasing a torrent of emotion. However sometimes it requires a little time to ‘digest’ what you’ve just heard. Sometimes it is important to go away and process the thoughts before ‘thinking out loud’. You are less likely to say something that you hadn’t fully thought through (and may regret later). It is okay to take ‘time out’ and agree to come back to it. If you get into the habit of good communications, then there isn’t that imperative to have to deal with everything in one go.

In summary
Overall, people who discuss things (even argue) in a similar style are more likely to resolve their differences. Using some or all of these tips helps to make sure that the right message gets through. It is really about learning how to focus the message and not getting side-tracked by our personal perceptions. Essentially, it is about making your ‘signal’ easier for the other person to process by getting rid of ‘the interference’.
What I’ve also found from reviewing the research is that people in relationships considered more intimate usually have a number of things in common:

  • – they tend to share equally private thoughts and feelings, especially private ones, and are more likely to say ‘I love you’, or pay their partners a compliment.
  • – they less likely to ‘point score’ and more likely to seek win-win solutions to any problems.
  • – they also tend to take a direct approach and talk rather than expect their partners to be mind-readers, and when in conflict they tend to look for a swift solution rather than ‘prolong the agony’ (i.e. sulking).

In short, relationships that are more intimate tend to be partnerships-based. Overall these pointers represent an ideal way to communicate, and as we know, sometimes we are not always presented with ideal conditions. So don’t worry if you don’t put all of these things into action every time. Do what you can at the time with the intention of maintaining a partnership perspective.