Communication is a process of “sending, receiving and resending” information from one person to another. Although effective communication is a pretty difficult task in its own right, it can become even more difficult when the person you’re talking to doesn’t emote or respond with emotional cues or facial expressions to help facilitate in the communication. The ability to get good results with people who demonstrate flat affect or more stoic expressions by really understanding each other is still real. Here are some basic solutions to get the most out of your communication, even with people who sometimes are harder to read than others.
Recognize The Difference
All human beings are wired to read the facial expressions of others.
It is our first language, and children at 8 months can even pick up on subtle facial expressions.
That’s why we can see faces in things where faces don’t exist (cars, buildings, clouds, etc.)
The simple fact you’re even asking this question is a great sign that you’re probably a pretty effective communicator. Many people are so into themselves when talking, they don’t even notice that the other person has a flat affect or fewer facial expressions.
By recognizing the difference, you will also be sure to not offend or put someone off who may show fewer facial expressions.
Remember that some people’s facial expressions might be impacted by past medical or physiological issues (Parkinson’s Disease, stroke), past traumas (car accidents), psychological disorders, medical procedures (face lifts, botox) or even just because of medications they’re taking.
If you’ve ever seen someone who has had a face lift or botox, you might see that they too have facial expressions that don’t quite add up.
Don’t Take It Personally
EXAMPLE: I tell a story about how I watch as many people in the room that I can when doing public speeches. I will watch some people laughing their eyes out about a story I’m telling, and others just sitting there with no smile on their face. I’ve found in many speeches, those same people come up and tell me they loved my talk. “I think to myself, well you certainly didn’t show it.” Moral of the story is, just because someone doesn’t emote, doesn’t mean they aren’t tracking or with you.
Don’t personalize their difference to be a reflection of you. Their lack of affect is no more your fault than your mother’s love of strawberry ice cream is because of you.
Many people tend to personalize their less effective interactions with others, and assume that their lack of emotional affect might have something to do with you.
People are different, so just accept them as they are.
When we’re not getting feedback from others, we tend to take it personally, like its something we must have done to make them mad.
Simply put, “everything isn’t always about you”. So don’t take offense to their style or ability issues when it comes to communication.
Humans love to categorize others into nice, tight little compartments: Fun or boring, safe or scary, connected or disconnected. However, I’ve learned that usually humans are way too complex to be broken down like that.
Remember that humans, like snow flakes, come in every shape and size.
Perhaps we could simply have more compassion for someone who doesn’t have either the knowledge or ability to communicate more with their non-verbals.
Don’t just see them as a grumpy old curmudgeon who doesn’t care, and instead try to find a way to better understand why they emote the way they do.
Perhaps they had an accident, a stroke or a medication that impacts their expression.
Perhaps they are shy.
Perhaps they grew up in a family that was unsafe, where you couldn’t emote, for fear of being punished.
Try to imagine what life might feel like from their perspective. Can you imagine how many times they may have been misunderstood, misinformed and even overlooked, simply because they didn’t or couldn’t emotionally communicate?
Adjust Your Approach
The sign of a strong communicator isn’t getting people to show more affect or facial expression, but instead effectively understanding what you can with the tools you have at your disposal.
Like a mother who can understand the needs of one of her children who isn’t opening up or telling something, healthy communicators will find a way to get the information they need from the person.
Remember that facial expression is really only one form of communication, and remember that it really isn’t ever obtained on the phone either. So we can communicate even if their affect is more flat.
Try using other methods to get information.
Texting or email the person
Try humor and see how that works at breaking the shell around the person.
Watching how others interact with the person.
See yourself as a learner or an expert who is called in to break the communication code with a difficult person. Learn what works. Make notes of what worked and what didn’t
Check Understanding With Clarifying Questions
Think about how quickly you can tell someone is listening simply because they laugh at your jokes quickly.
So when we can’t tell if someone is tracking because of their lack of facial expressions, then we need to ask specific, targeted questions to test learning.
“So John, I know I’ve been rambling here. Was it clear for you about how you can turn in your assignment after hours?” Or “So Stacy, I’m so sorry about your family situation with your mom being sick. How are you feeling about what is going on?” or “I’ve never had a parent in the hospital. What do you find to be hardest thing about your situation?”
Usually you’ll find that these people are fairly receptive to more questioning because they will feel like you really care because you’re trying to get them to be more open.
“So, what was your biggest learning from the last 8 minutes we’ve shared together?”