Caution: Signals Ahead

In every conversation, meeting, chance encounter and written communication we provide signals. When we are in person those signals can be easy to spot. We understand that the person rolling their eyes in a meeting isn’t on board. Across the room, we recognize another nodding in agreement. These signals are clear. But, as more and more of our professional interactions happen on-line and via phone, visual body signals simply aren’t available.

Yet signals remain an intimate and critical part of human communication. They may be harder to spot when you’re not eye to eye, but you can still tap into them if you pay attention. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Shhh, let us observe a moment of pause

Have you ever been on a phone conversation and felt yourself going on and on without pause? I’m totally guilty as charged. I used to try to fill even the shortest of silences. Stop, catch yourself and pause. If you are on the phone, on the web or even in video chat engaged individuals are looking for an appropriate minute to chime in. If you never pause for more than a breath, most people will give up trying to engage and you’re left with a tuned out conversation partner. They are reading your signal – you don’t care what they have to say, therefore why should they keep trying to talk.

Anyone, anyone?

It’s not often I remember specific scenes from a movie, even those I enjoy. But who could forget the iconic scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the teacher asks his class a question, only to be met by total silence. “Anyone, Anyone” he drones on in monotone pitch.  It’s pretty clear no one was paying attention. The same is true of your conversations. If no one is asking questions, adding comments, answering your polls, or simply responding to your direct queries, no one is truly listening. Hearing is one thing, but listening is an active process that takes bi-directional participation. For small group meetings I often stop and ask “Does that make sense to everyone?” It’s an easy transition to make sure everyone stays involved.

We’re not friends, why does your email sound like it is from one?

When I first learned business writing it was formal, structured and always proof read. The increased use of email has made many of us lazy communicators.  Just a couple of days ago I registered for a white paper on a technology vendor site. I entered my full name Samantha Stone and gave them my real email address. A couple of days later a sales person from that firm followed up with me. Good for them, right? Wrong. They did two important things wrong in their follow-up. First, they addressed the email to “Sam”.  I immediately was turned off, they took liberties with my name and haven’t even met me. Both my email address and form completion used Samantha. What gave them the right to refer to me as my friends do? Secondly, they didn’t ask me if I found the white paper useful, or if I had any follow-up questions about the content. They didn’t offer me another relevant piece of content I might enjoy. Instead they asked if I was interested in their technology.  Please, be approachable. Be helpful, but remember you have to earn the right to be a friend. When you assume a too casual demeanor you are signaling you don’t respect the other person. Whether you meant to or not.

Intonation matters

I’m forever telling my 11-year-old, “it’s how you say it, not what you say that matters”. For anyone who has teenage kids in your life you particularly understand what I mean. But while we can forgive our children, as professionals we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard. If you listen to how someone is talking you can learn a lot. Are they whining, sarcastic, enthusiastic, bored. Our voice tells us as much as crossed arms, eye rolls and head nods. You just have to listen for it.

In your next conversations remember we’re both giving and receiving signals in every interaction. Make them count!


  1. This is an excellent piece of writing that will be shared with my educator friends, as well, Well stated and an important lesson and reminder.