The dark bricks of the Underground rushed by the windows; I swayed with the carriage and sorted out the morning. I had a feeling that the meeting I’d just left had not gone well, but couldn’t put my finger on a problem in the substance of the talks. In fact, reflecting on the conversation, I wasn’t sure why my gut was so certain. Yet, even if my head wasn’t sure, my gut knew
It must be in the prosody of the conversation, not in the words exchanged. I do think that we pick up subliminal cues from timing, body language, the rhythm and flow of conversation, that color how we interpret the words being used. (Psychologists say that at least 80% of the meaning is conveyed in non-verbal cues).
So what cues were being picked up? I can think of a few:
- Timing: They were late and didn’t linger once the business was done.
- Body language: Rather than smile, lean in, and make eye contact: they were distracted and fidgety.
- Engagement: Questions were answered, but never followed with a reciprocal question; comments weren’t elaborated or discussed.
- Respect: Agreement wasn’t acknowledged; disagreement wasn’t negotiated.
- Connection: There was no recognition of events, people or experiences that we shared in the past, no take-up on those where we might connect in the future.
- Exchange: They neither gave nor accepted any token of value, an offer to inform, act, or connect to solve a problem.
- Affect: Cordial and businesslike, grey without any happiness or concern
- Evolution: The conversation didn’t build anything, it just circled the bricks.
I think that people do pick up some combination of these negative cues and compensate by listening more carefully, looking for common ground, backing off a bit. Disappointment leads to that sense that “things didn’t go well”, almost irrespective of the spoken outcomes of the meeting. Your gut knows.
I walked back through the conversation with those thoughts in mind: In this case, there wasn’t much that could have improved things. But I can, in hindsight, see where I was trying little experiments to try to improve the atmosphere. I wish I had more simple charisma to fall back on that might have saved it.