All Behaviour is Communication

Your body movements, the way you use your eyes and face, your changing skin tone, your physical posture, your voice tonality, pace, and pitch, and even your level and positioning of breath, give clues to other people about who and what you are.

In our distant evolutionary past, the accurate sending and receiving of those clues could mean the difference between grunts of approval and acceptance or assault and battery with a crude weapon.

Today, we invest a large part of our early lives learning how not to show what we’re thinking, perfecting how not to reveal our feelings and practising how not to be read or understood by others. We learn to manage the impressions others have of us during an uncompromising indoctrination into polite society in our formative years.

We create public and often private facades to hide behind, to put people off the scent. We have been conditioned to send out false cues to project as someone other than who we really are. As our culture has allegedly become more sophisticated, it seems that one of the greatest fears to emerge is that of being discovered to be completely and wondrously human.

We have developed a range of defences to prevent people from discovering that we are as human as the next person. We are taught to devalue the honest expression of our emotions. We learn, usually in collusion with significant others like parents and teachers, to suppress spontaneous reactions and expressions of true sentiment.

By the time we reach our mid-twenties, many of us have become so good at self-containment that even those closest to us rarely get a glimpse of our truer selves. The tyranny of compliance and socialisation exact a high price.

So, when we ‘do’ containment, what does it look and sound like to others? Most self-containment acts are very amateurish indeed. To excel at self-containment you need to focus on two things simultaneously: hiding your feelings, opinions, and responses and creating a credible mask to replace them.

It’s very difficult to think and hit the ball at the same time, and most of us simply don’t have the expertise and flexibility to do that. The best we can usually come up with is some neutral or dissociated state that can at times be interpreted as even-tempered. With time and practice it can come to represent our so-called nature, and at worst we may mirror the disposition and energy of that new breed of deadpan comics. How come we laugh at them when so many of us are like them?

Even temperament is a favoured disguise in our culture. The carefully modulated voice, the narrow tonal range, controlled facial mask, purposeful and limited body movement, and neutral postures are occasionally interpreted as signs of stability and emotional control. But, do those so-called qualities win hearts and minds, build corporate cultures, convince people to support your ideas, or stop an ugly development from blighting your suburb? For that you need to give voice, body, and passion to your convictions.


Your ability to express a range of emotions, your capacity to let energy flow and your ability to let your voice and body mirror the ‘emotional fingerprint’ of your content is an extremely important part of charisma and influence. In public speaking, if you deny people access to legitimate emotion associated with your sentiments, you may send them tonal and physiological signals that undermine or neutralise your content.

In some studies conducted on the range of emotions that respondents consistently found themselves experiencing, it was discovered that the majority went through life aware of four or five enduring states. Such was the success of their personal self-containment strategies, that the respondents had repudiated or forgotten literally hundreds of other states of mind available to them.

A thought that may not have occurred to until now is that the greater number of emotional states you can access, the more flexibility you will have in dealing with life’s daily challenges. It follows that the more flexibility you have, the greater number of behavioural options you will have available to you. The more options you have the better your chances of being able to control and influence your environment.

Take an average family of young children and adults and notice who’s really in control of their environment. Seemingly the adults, but we all know it’s the youngest child. Young children, thank goodness, generally haven’t learned to deny themselves permission to express their message fully.

Normal children have the widest range of behaviours and personal flexibility of any demographic category. They just ‘do’ emotion and behaviour, and they do it with purpose and passion, much to our delight and occasionally to our chagrin. When younger children do behaviour, notice how their body movements, tones of voice, energy levels, and facial and eye expressions are in total harmony. Sadly, they have something that we once had before we learned how to contain ourselves.

Of course, you need to monitor yourself in a variety of situations. It isn’t common sense to give way to your ”inner child” during a company function and throw food at the guest of honour. You wouldn’t go to the funeral of a wealthy benefactor in board shorts and sing “I’m in the money!” during the service, even if you felt that way. You may even think twice about revealing your unqualified disappointment at your partner returning home with a hairstyle that makes him/her look like an articulated toilet brush.

You can, however, respond and react within the boundaries of common sense and reasonable behaviour. In choosing to do so, you can congratulate yourself for having taken a major step towards building a more charismatic profile.

In yielding to the enormous pressures of socialisation, many people seem to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. What you may choose to consider is bringing back the bits of the baby that had the capacity to align its voice, body, and heart to the expression of its message.

Make a list, as long a list as you can of emotional states (For example, happiness, dread, exuberance, cheekiness, boldness, etc., etc.) Then, make a note of the states of mind you rarely, if ever experience. Try a few of them out. Go back to a time in your life and notice how surprising and delightful it can be to remember the physical and emotional sensations attached to those states. How did your body ‘speak’ those emotions? What physical movement and countenance was involved, and how did you voice them?

And as you find yourself reviewing your memory of long-gone expressions of emotion, begin to appreciate the fact that all you need to do is get in touch with them to bring them into the present.

(c) Desmond Guilfoyle 2006

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