The guard aimed his machine gun at me. I saw him racking the charging handle on its right side. Not good, I thought, not good at all. He loaded it.
This man was clearly angry. He kept yelling, and I kept not understanding a word. By then, my mind was racing and my heart pounding.
That happened many years ago at the border between Tibet and Nepal. You can read the full story in my book.
That moment was a defining one for me, as it taught me that just as critical as our language is, our expressions, attitude, and mindset play as big a role in conveying an impression and communicating a message.
This was a moment when I couldn't afford to make a mistake. I knew I had to deescalate the situation immediately. But how?
Many studies have shown that if you only listen to what a person says and ignore what their expressions and body language tell you, you'll only know half the story.
Similarly, if you are unaware of how your emotions affect how you show up in conversations and the message your facial expressions and gestures send, you can only get so far in building rapport.
I've seen technical engineers, data scientists, and great minds who were brilliant in conveying even the most complex concepts using a language adapted perfectly to their audience.
When you apply principles of adaptation to other types of communication, where you also modify your attitude, expressions, and tone of voice; you will enable others to relate not just to data but to you.
When you understand and know how to navigate both your nonverbal skills and your verbal communication, not only will your technical abilities be appreciated but also who you are as a person.
If your coworkers understand your data but not your ability to lead, inspire, or influence, how will they be able to see you for all you are?
The key to improving communication is to become aware of the dissonance between how you think you communicate and how others perceive your communication.
I have been (and sometimes, still am) guilty of most of the below (adapted from Mark Goulston: Just Listen)
As you can see, how others interpret your outward, public self can be quite different from the self you think you are projecting. If you are unaware of the discrepancy, you are bound to sabotage your relationships.
Are you aware of how you show up in conversations (your tone of voice, posture, body language, and the impression you give)?
How do people perceive you in general? Can you think of times when your self-perception differed from how others perceived you?
What adjustments do you believe you should make?
If you don't know the answer to these questions, think of someone who knows you well and could help you gain clarity.
Change is always in the moment. The way you see yourself and who you want to be is created—or destroyed—in moments of courage and moments of aggravation, in awareness or obliviousness. I had to muster what little courage I had not to lose control when that Chinese guard racked his machine gun and pointed it at me.
You can read more in my book about what I did to deescalate the situation and get to a point where that guard was friendly to me. But for now, imagine yourself at a border crossing, except you won't be walking across a borderline but reaching out across a conference room table.
Nobody is pointing a gun at you; still, you may feel that you are under the gun. You need to achieve your goals, so you must adapt your attitude, language, and behavior to the audience to create the rapport you need.
What will you do?
Looking for more tips to lead with heart and empathy? My new book, You've Got Algorithm, but Can You Dance? is available now on Amazon.