During my visit to Africa, I had the opportunity to witness wildlife living in their natural habitat. I wasn't expecting this trip to be a lesson in communication, but it absolutely was.
One of our guides on safari shared with us that when animals feel the least bit threatened, they show their weapon as a warning before they attack. A few examples of this include, the rhino who will knock their horn on the ground, the elephant who will stomp their feet and wave their ears and the hippo who will blow water and then show their teeth.
When the animals do this, it is a warning that they feel threatened in some way and want to show you how they can and will hurt you if you don’t back off.
I found this incredibly fascinating and it got me thinking about what we as humans do when we feel threatened before we ‘attack’ to defend ourselves.
We all find ourselves in situations in our professional and personal lives where someone does or says something that puts us on the defense. I believe that our words are our most commonly used weapon and before someone uses them negatively they may, depending on how heated the situation is, give silent signals that if we notice can help us defuse the situation.
1: The Close-Off
The first is what I will call the ‘close-off’. We close off as a subconscious way to protect ourselves from the perceived threat. We may cross our arms or pull something in front of us at our desk and we may even move so something (like our desk) is between us and the person we are talking with. We may cross our legs away from the other person or adjust our shoulders so we are not square with them. Many people also bite their lip or purse their lips together as a way to hold in what they are actually feeling.
2: The Glance-Off
The second signal to watch for is the ‘glance-off’. We avoid making eye contact by looking at the ground or looking away from the other person so they cannot make eye contact and tell what we are thinking in the moment. We also tend do this or to narrow our eyes when we are receiving negative feedback to protect ourselves and let less of the other person ‘in’.
3: The Stand-Off
The third is a bit more assertive and can be a sign that an attack is likely, I like to call it the ‘stand-off’. We adjust our stance to be wider sometimes with one foot in front of the other, make a fist and put our hands at our sides or place our hands on our hips. As the conversation progresses and the words start to spew, we often use our gestures to point at the other person and may even straighten our posture to stand taller (making ourselves feel bigger, even if we are not).
The close-off, glance-off and stand-off can all be signals that we feel threatened and will use our words to fight back. This is when our communication becomes a weapon.
If you notice any of these silent signals there are things that you can do to avoid a confrontation and ease the tension.
First and most importantly, don’t close-off, glance-off or stand-off yourselves. Watch your body language carefully instead of matching the body language of the person you are communicating with. Instead, maintain open body language (no arm crossing, fists or pointing), strong eye contact, and a relaxed stance. If you do match the other person’s body language, the situation can quickly elevate to an attack where things are said that both parties will probably regret.
Second, use your words in a calm manner to address the situation head on. Use phrases like, “I can tell that we both feel passionately about this. Lets take some time away from _______ (the issue) and talk more about it later today/tomorrow” or “I think it is probably best to talk more about this later after we both have time to calm down”. Using these phrases in the heat of the moment, although it is hard to do, can help alleviate some tension and allow you to avoid attacking each other.
Third, don’t be afraid to apologize if it is appropriate. If you have said or done something that caused someone to close-off, glance-off or stand-off, you want to address it as quickly as possible. Looking them directly in their eyes and saying something like, “I know that I made a mistake, and I am sorry. What can I do to make it right?” or “I can tell that something I said isn’t sitting right with you and that wasn’t my intention.”
The good news is, when we are communicating professionally and personally we don’t typically have to attack each other to stay alive the way animals do. We have the ability to notice the silent signals and communicate effectively before things escalate.
I encourage you to watch for the silent signals and use your body language and communication skills to avoid being attacked or attacking others with words.