“Studies indicate that more than 90 percent of human communication is nonverbal,” former federal prosecutor Allison Leotta wrote
in the December 2016 issue of the American Bar Association Journal
. In her article on the importance of nonverbal communication, she considered, “Of course, we hope that trials aren’t battles of personalities. We hope that jurors will listen to the merits of the case, examining the facts, evidence and expert testimony without bias. But inevitably, jurors will filter your facts through the emotions that you sparked in them.” Your nonverbals—tone, body language, and facial expressions—have a profound impact on the people who are taking in your words because they infuse language with context.
Ms. Leotta’s article is full of excellent tips about body language that anybody can use—not just a federal prosecutor—but I was particularly struck by her tip for how to consistently take a nonverbal approach that is resonant, authentic, and nonthreatening. “Eventually, I found my sweet spot, talking to jurors as I would to my mother-in-law: a smart, empathetic woman I loved and admired and who brought out the best side of me.”
That certainly wasn’t the tip I was expecting when I started reading the article! Maybe I’ve watched too many Law & Order
reruns, but I suppose I had assumed that an effective prosecutor had to be tough to be successful. But when she engaged with a jury, she didn’t gear her language toward a combative opponent. She didn’t adopt the tone of an authoritarian. She didn’t take on a defensive posture. Her most effective comportment as a litigator was achieved by using the same genuine and heartfelt conduct she used in her personal life—imagining that she was speaking not to a panel of relative strangers, but to a beloved family member who inspired her to be her best and kindest self.
The more a person escalates into distress, the less they can process your choice of words. So how you speak becomes far more important than what you say. When we speak to somebody we care about and respect, our tone and body language become relaxed, receptive, and nonthreatening. There is a special degree of patience and attention we show to those people. And those same qualities are exactly what a person in crisis needs to see so that they can safely de-escalate.
That’s why one of CPI’s top 10 de-escalation tips is: Use nonthreatening nonverbals.
What you do influences the reaction of a person in crisis far more than what you say. Keeping your nonverbals as neutral as possible begins to defuse the situation at a subconscious level by making the sitaution feel less combative. The trick, of course, is being mindful in those moments of adjusting your nonverbal messaging, consciously taking a nonthreatening physical posture, and controlling your tone. Training can help you and your staff engage with a compassionate voice and see beyond the challenging behavior so that you can connect to the person in crisis. Picturing that you’re talking to somebody who inspires your most compassionate and thoughtful behavior is a fantastic holistic approach to your nonverbal behavior—not just for a crisis, but for our interactions in everyday life as well.