An incredible thing would happen every Tuesday evening. I would walk into my dance class, say hello to a couple of people and then dance mostly with strangers. Despite not knowing their names it would take only a few moments to build communication and trust, and connect through dancing. It would be as if we already knew each other. How is this possible?
We usually think that communication is all about the task-related information we are conveying through talking, presenting or writing. But how many times haven’t you sat through long presentations and meetings where someone does all the talking while others are fiddling with their phones, chatting, or answering emails? It happens more frequently that we would like to admit. But even when we are having a one-on-one with someone, how many times do we end up having parallel monologues rather than actually listening to each other?
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.George Bernard Shaw
At work, we naturally tend to focus a lot on verbal communication (speaking and writing), while not paying much attention to nonverbal cues. But, communication is much more than a mere exchange of words and information through spoken and written language. In reality, most of our communication happens through invisible nonverbal cues.
Nonverbal Communication and Trust
Nonverbal communication refers to body language, touch, motion, physical distance, eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice and use of time (i.e.punctuality, patience). Compared to verbal, nonverbal communication evolved much earlier in our history. For thousands of years was our only way of communicating and building relationships. Because of its earlier emergence, nonverbal communication is located in a much older area of our brain, the Limbic System. This is responsible for our emotions, long-term memory, and behaviour, and as such is more instinctual and involuntary. Therefore, nonverbal communication is primarily used to express emotions, create rapport, influence, and connect with others.
Another way of distinguishing nonverbal communication from verbal is that the former is primarily biological and as such more universal, while the latter is primarily cultural. However, both types of communication evolved jointly. Unlike verbal though, nonverbal communication can convey more meaning. Both can provide a much richer picture during our interactions with others.
However, compared to verbal communication, nonverbal has no structure, grammar or rules and we learn its norms through intuition. Hence, it can be more idiosyncratic, involuntary and unpredictable. It can be described more like an art that once mastered can help us establish meaningful communication and trust with others.
Dancing without saying a single word
One evening at a social dance event, a lady asked me to dance with her. I had never seen her before in my life and didn’t know anything about her level or style. We started dancing and within the first few moves I felt an incredible connection. Every move was effortless and there was flow, as if we have been dancing together for years. There was great eye contact, flawless timing and incredible synchronisation. When we finished, we thanked each other, she left and I never saw her again. For me this was a celebration of nonverbal communication. It is no wonder that for thousands of years people have danced to communicate, connect with each other, attract partners, and essentially survive.
It is not unusual to establish communication and trust with your partner through touch, space, physical proximity, motion, eye contact, and timing. This happens most of the times on a subconscious level, and leads to a much deeper connection. As such, it doesn’t take long to understand whether there is good chemistry. This has less to do with your skills or experience and more with the connection you establish with your partner.
But no partner and dance are ever the same. It is an always an ongoing dynamic process, and the key is to be able to read their level, and adjust as you go. However, sometimes things just don’t work, and there is poor communication and trust. Nevertheless nonverbal communication is a much richer and universal form of communication than verbal and can act as a catalyst in establishing quickly better and more meaningful communication and trust with others.
Verbal Communication: Cultural Context and Mental Model
At a later point in our evolutionary journey, we developed our ability to think and communicate through language. Initially, this helped us create close-knit groups. Then, through our ability to share information about others, it allowed us to form larger tribes. However, what helped us collaborate at a larger scale was our ability to create shared narratives, myths and legends, which enabled the connection of thousands of people.
Verbal communication, which comprises of both spoken and written communication, is primarily cultural. Through language people organised into groups, and created unique cultures, which in turn shaped and differentiated their language further. As a result, when people from different cultural backgrounds come together, they often have different frames of reference and context. This can lead to misunderstandings, confusion and interpersonal conflict.
Low-Context versus High-Context Communication
When reading an email from people we don’t know well, we usually struggle to understand the wider context. This is why, emails and written messages are considered low-bandwidth, as they offer little emotional or other context.
But even when it comes to spoken communication, misunderstandings are frequent, especially between people from different cultural backgrounds. Erin Meyer, Professor at INSEAD Business School, in her book Cultural Map mentions that people from low-context cultures (i.e. USA, Netherlands, UK, etc.) most of the times say what they mean and mean what they say. Of course, there are differences amongst low-context cultures but overall their communication is factual, simple and clear with nothing implied.
In contrast, people from high-context cultures (i.e. Japan, China, Spain, Russia, Mexico), have more nuanced and multi-layered communication with subtext. They often don’t say what they mean and the real message is usually implied. As Erin Meyer says, to understand people from high-context cultures you need to be able to “read the air”.
In addition, she identified patterns between countries based on their language family, historical context and how homogenous they are. For instance, Japanese, who have shared the same cultural context for hundreds of years communicate effectively by saying very little and implying much. There is no need to be explicit or even speak as they share the same assumptions, expectations and meaning. On the other hand in the US, due to their cultural diversity, verbal communication has evolved to be explicit and simple.
Shared Mental Model
The term mental model was coined in the 1940s by Kenneth Craik. It is used to describe the model we use to understand the world around us based on our structured knowledge. Essentially, we use our mental models to make sense of our environment, draw inferences, predict outcomes and act.
Furthermore, when a group of people comes together to form a team, each member brings their own mental model. The more there is overlap and synergy between everyone’s mental models, the more we can predict the team’s performance. This is especially true in dynamic situations with task uncertainty, communication challenges, time constraints, and changing priorities, where teams need to draw from their shared mental model to quickly sense and adapt. It is this ability to adapt quickly that enables teams to be successful.
When dancing, my ability to dance and connect with strangers without saying a word is due to our shared knowledge of Cuban Salsa. Our common experience and knowledge of Cuban Salsa creates clear behavioural expectations, and strong shared assumptions. Due to our shared “cultural” context, most information is conveyed through eye contact, touch, proximity, timing and body signals. In this sense, in dancing there is high-context nonverbal communication between two partners, who share a similar mental model.
Communication and Trust right from the start
Let’s imagine that you have just encountered someone for the first time. You don’t know their name or background but you are expected to dance with them and trust that they know what they are doing. For anyone that has danced or watched Cuban Salsa before they know that there are some really complicated moves. The leader can put their arms around the follower’s neck while turning fast. It takes a certain level of trust to allow someone you don’t know to execute such breath-taking moves around your neck.
It is always interesting how inexperienced followers resist the tension that their partners transmit through their arms. Sometimes it looks as if the two partners are wrestling. On the other hand, inexperienced leaders sometimes can pull their partners’ hands with excessive force, leading to injury. Although it is impossible to know your partner’s level, it can take just moments to read each other, establishing communication and trust.
However, trust is not only essential but also needs to be established right from the start. The more respectful and empathetic the leader is the easier it will be for the follower to trust them. Through nonverbal communication, the two partners can quickly convey empathy and respect to each other, establishing an initial level of trust. Then, once the dance has started, trust can increase or decrease, based on the ongoing dynamic interaction.
Due to their shared mental model the two dancers have assumptions and expectations, which combined with the initial exchange of nonverbal cues create an invisible ongoing dialogue that establishes high-context communication and trust.
Trust in a business environment
As humans, when we share similar mental models, we are really good in working together. We are quick in sensing and adapting to dynamic situations. Similar to dancing, the quality of the initial interactions among team members is fundamental for an effective relationship built on trust. However, if team members fail to establish trust early on, it becomes much more difficult later on.
There are two types of trust, task-based and relationship-based. Sharing overlapping mental models can enable task-based trust within the team. For instance, a software team that works using Agile practices can establish task-based trust fast if everyone in the team has similar experience. In some cultures (US) where people don’t like mixing business with personal relationships this might be enough. But for other cultures (Asian), there isn’t such a clear dividing line between task-based trust and relationship-based trust.
Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.Emergent states in virtual teams: a complex adaptive systems perspective – Petru Curseu (2006)
To build relationship-based trust, similar to dancing, you need to feel comfortable to be yourself with others and show empathy and vulnerability. In a way trust is a way of surrendering yourself to the team, in order to become an integrated whole. Some years ago, Google went on a quest to understand what makes the perfect team. They spent months studying data from hundreds of their teams. What they found was that in high-performing teams people felt comfortable to be themselves, developing better interpersonal trust and mutual respect. This is what Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard University has described as having “psychological safety”.
Over the years, I have made some great friends through dancing and feel a deep connection to them. But this has puzzled me for a long time. Why I feel so much closer to people I dance with than people I work with or even friends I have known for much longer?
The combination of a well-defined shared mental model with high-context nonverbal communication makes people decide whether they can establish trust or not almost within a few seconds.
The more experienced someone we are the more skilled we become in using nonverbal cues to establish a connection with others. In a way, it seems that nonverbal communication acts as a catalyst for trust. However, it all relies on having a shared mental model and context, in order to establish an initial level of trust. Following that, we can use nonverbal communication to show empathy, be ourselves and build a culture of trust.