Dear Crucial Skills,
I’ve been mulling over how when we’re trying to be very careful about our words during a crucial conversation, our body language can sometimes send an entirely different message.
I know we can be aware of our body language and keep it neutral, but what about our tone of voice, little noises we might make, and our expressions? Do you know of any techniques to control those things? I find that although I may have the right words, my tone of voice or my expressions can give away my real feelings about the situation. Help!
Trying to hide
This is a difficult question to answer. If you’d asked me twenty five years ago I would have suggested that the ability to say one thing while feeling quite differently was a vital performance skill—one my research colleague David Maxfield and I called “generative control.” It consists of the ability to generate the appropriate affect to go along with a verbal statement you might not be feeling at all. For example, enthusiastically stating: “Wow tickets to the Death Mob concert! Cool!” when you would rather do just about anything else.
This particular ability was part of several dimensions David and I studied as we examined the performance skills required in everyday life. The results suggested that some people are quite good at masking their honest feelings (repressive control) or even creating behavioral affectations where there is no underlying emotion (generative control). And not surprisingly, others struggle to mask their true feelings.
Of course, once you quantified an individual’s performance skill level, you could then teach lower performers to become better performers—smoother, capable of remaining calm under fire, and even more capable of hiding one’s honest concerns, fears, and disappointments while appearing open and composed.
So, twenty-five years ago, and I would have advised you on how to be a more convincing actor.
With time, I’ve come to believe that masking one’s true feelings isn’t always a good idea. Lest I overreact and suggest that all mistruths are vile, let’s put the topic in context. We often take the expression out of our emotions to avoid hurting others or say things we don’t really mean in order to make others feel good. We call these innocent misrepresentations “white lies” and typically don’t revile them because we value relationships and feelings over candor and trust.
But there’s a bigger issue here. The problem with getting good at hiding your true feelings is that it often facilitates unhealthy behavior. If you become a good actor, you don’t have to express your honest views. You can keep your opinions and feelings all bottled up inside where they not only don’t get resolved, but also can lead to all kinds of unhealthy physiological responses ranging from a weakened immune system to heart failure.
So here are a few crucial skills for communicating your true intent.
Don’t make a sucker’s choice: All of this “acting” stems from the incorrect assumption that others can’t take the truth, or that we can’t deliver it without offending. Consequently, we’d better lie and then hide it well. This either/or thinking is a sucker’s choice. However, if we possess adequate skills, we can speak the honest truth while sharing the accompanying emotions and not worrying about putting our job or relationship at risk or offending others. If we have the right intent, the content of what we say doesn’t matter.
Ask the humanizing question: We don’t always have to think the worst of others and create harsh and controversial feelings in the first place. To make it safe for others during a crucial conversation, don’t assume the worst of others and then confront them with your worst conclusions. Instead, ask, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that?” This helps delay judgment and the harsh feelings that come with it.
Focus on the greater experience: Let me add one more thought to this congruence challenge. Say you don’t want to lie about your opinions or mask your emotions, for all the obvious reasons. But if the topic is trivial enough, maybe you should be able to grin and say something pleasant. However, before we reach for a white lie and our masking skills to support it, I have another idea on how to be socially pleasant —and still be truthful. It involves taking a larger view of the issue. Here’s what I mean.
Last month, I took six granddaughters to see a popular teenage singer in concert along with a Fourth of July fireworks show. Left to my own choice, I would have preferred having the fireworks aimed directly at me more than listening to this particular performer. And sure enough, I really hated the music, the dancing, and the costumes. However, as I watched my granddaughters clap, sing, and squeal in delight, my opinion of the evening changed. Eventually, one of the girls turned to me and shouted: “This is the best time ever!” And sure enough, I too took great pleasure from the overall experience. It was a wonderful evening. I was happy that they were happy.
As we left, the girls wanted to know what I thought of the show. More precisely, they wanted me to like what they had liked. One finally asked me, “Did you like (insert teenage icon’s name here)?” I answered without hesitation, “I had a wonderful time. She really had the crowd going!” My granddaughters beamed back at me during one of those precious moments grandparents live for.
Now, I could have easily stated: “She stunk!” It was certainly my opinion. However, I preferred taking the bigger view and discussing what we shared in common. Indeed, we all felt it was a wonderful evening (even if for different reasons). I reveled with them as they squealed in joy. So, saying I had a wonderful time didn’t take an ounce of acting on my part. This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I don’t feel that way. I chose to focus on the greater experience rather than the minor point because this action was congruent with my values.
So, after 25 years of experience, I’m less interested in enhancing my masking skills and more interested in finding ways to speak honestly and effectively. I try to avoid drawing harsh conclusions. This obviates the need to mask harsh feelings. I believe sharing facts rather than conclusions is far less likely to lead to a negative reaction. Consequently, I don’t worry as much about speaking my mind and as a result, I don’t have to mask my fears. And lastly, given the chance, during moments where the precise details of the argument are far less important than the relationship itself, I’m more likely to talk about what we share in common over how we differ in detail. This too demands no acting on my part.