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Improving Communication: Controlling Your Body Language and Tone

FEATURESept28thMany think that communication is the single most important aspect of project management.  I won’t argue that point. 

We can all agree that communication is essential and a major factor in achieving objectives.  Managing expectations, settling disputes, agreeing upon requirements, coming up with designs, managing to the schedule and budget and maintaining healthy relationships all hinge on communication.
Communication is an enormous and complex subject with many models, concepts, techniques and tools.   Here we will focus on one factor, the ability to manage body language and tone.

Why manage body language and tone? You might ask.  Because, in communication, particularly when there are emotional or behavioral issues or ambiguity, tone of voice and non-verbal (often subtle and unconscious body language including facial expressions and posture) have a significant impact.  Albert Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% Rule says that when speaking about one’s feelings and there is an incongruity between one’s word and one’s tone or non-verbal communication the receiver will trust the predominant tone and non-verbal components (93%) over the words (7%). 


After giving a presentation on conflict management to a group of project managers the following question came up: “In approaching a manager with an issue, questioning a process, how do you not come off as condescending?”  It triggered in my mind the need to be very much aware of our true feelings and the way they show up in our verbal and non-verbal communication. 

Condescension often arises from a judgment regarding the way the other party(ies) should be behaving or has behaved. 

What is an example from your life where a negative emotion takes over and spills out in the form of body language tone of voice (affect) and, possibly, the words themselves?

Dealing with Feeling

In project management circles emotionally driven behavioral issues are present but not often dealt with directly.  As a result there is a greater tendency for the words and affect behind the words to be at odds with one another. 

Until such time that one can cut the roots of negative feelings and eliminate those feelings before they arise and influence behavior, one can skillfully adjust behavior even after the feelings arise.  Body language and tone as well as speech are behaviors. 

Taking Control of your Affect

Most of us can moderate our speech – the content of what we say, and we regularly do so in our work.  Rare is the person who is totally candid, revealing his true thoughts as an innocent child might (I am thinking of the child who has no problem saying that the king has no close on when everyone else holds back or lies about it when asked directly about the king’s glorious new suit of clothes that can only be seen by the worthy and wise.)

In the same way we moderate the content of our speech can moderate our body language and tone of voice.  We can sense the feelings and observe how they translate into behavior.  We can give ourselves the option to behave differently while not “stuffing” or suppressing our feelings.  We can become increasingly aware of ourselves and of the effect our behavior has on others and the effect of their behavior on us. 

Then we can communicate.

You might be thinking that it’s not easy to take control of your affect and work with your feelings without letting them drive your behavior.  Yes, it is not easy, but, it is well worth taking on the challenge.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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