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A free E-zine from Communication Excellence Institute, dedicated to improving communication in the professional workplace.

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NOTE: To our clients and friends of CEI and PSSP.
We have just released a new DVD of our classic presentation, “BEYOND WORDS: Building Your Personal Credibility Through Nonverbal Communication.” You can learn more about it at the end of this article.

A common phrase we hear in our business is “Well, then, you teach ‘soft skills’.” Subjects like leadership, motivating people, building rapport, strengthening teams, handling conflict, and making business presentations have long been seen as vital to executive success, but have not lent themselves to quantitative measurement. That, however, has now changed. We can now track the dollar-and-cent costs to individuals and organizations of interpersonal conflict, lousy presentations, and dysfunctional teams—and they’re HUGE! What we’re also now learning is that those so-called “soft skills” are built into our basic neurological processes.

In this issue of People Skills for Skilled People, we’re going to take a look at how we are…

Hard-Wired for “Soft Skills”
Vol. 5, No. 3

If you haven’t picked up the September 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, rush right out and get it! There’s an excellent article in it by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) and his colleague Richard Boyatzis called “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.” If you’ve ever had any doubts about how important communication and human relations skills are to your career and personal success, this will settle them once and for all.

The authors introduce us to the emerging scientific field of Social Neuroscience, which they define as “the study of what happens in the brain while people interact,” and devote the rest of the article to how the findings of this new science are shedding light on the making of an effective leader. In a nutshell, what we now know is that activities such as exhibiting empathy and reaching out to others literally affect each person’s brain chemistry. What’s more, some parts of each of the brains involved in an interpersonal encounter of leader-follower “resonate” as one unified system. The authors are saying that great leaders, either consciously or unconsciously, tap into that unification, leading to highly productive interpersonal dynamics.

Ever wonder why smiles and yawns are so contagious? The reason seems to be that our brains are wired for empathy. The authors attribute the spread of emotional states between people to mirror neurons in the brain—cells specifically designed to reproduce in us the emotions someone else is exhibiting (and vice versa).

Then they report on an interesting experiment that shows how powerfully these neurons work. Two groups were formed: one where the members received negative feedback on their performance delivered with positive body language and voice, and the other where the members received positive feedback accompanied by negative nonverbal signals. The experimenters then followed up with members from both groups to find out how happy or unhappy they felt about the feedback. Amazingly, the group that received negative feedback delivered with positive gestures and vocal qualities felt better than the other group, despite the fact that their feedback was negative rather than positive.

This demonstrates a crucial truth: the way something is said is far more important than what is said. This means that the nonverbal component of communication carries far more impact than the verbal part (in fact, 93% of that impact comes through nonverbal channels). Jan and I have role-played these types of communication in our speeches, and the audiences have drawn the same conclusions.

Here’s how all this translates into actual experience. We often say when you’re talking with someone “Your attitude will determine their attitude.” And your attitude toward that person or toward what you’re talking about will be conveyed most strongly by your use of nonverbal communication. For example, we urge all our clients to learn to talk through a smile, or at least a pleasant expression. Now we know why this method works! Mirror neurons that specialize in detecting other people’s smiles and laughter reproduce the positive feelings we are projecting in the listener. This creates a resonance effect of positive emotions between other people and ourselves, lifting everyone’s spirits in the process.

So is smiling and laughter a “soft skill”—some kind of  touchy-feely fluff that doesn’t affect the bottom line? No! Harvard researchers have found that top performing leaders elicit laughter in their managers three times more often than mid-performing leaders do. Creating positive emotional resonance with your team leads to success, and makes the process more enjoyable for everyone at the same time.

We ask our clients to use open body language, things like palms-up gestures and leaning in toward the other person. That’s been great behavioral advice, but now we know it’s grounded in our actual neural makeup. Of course, the best advice for leaders who want to build rapport is to use smiles, laughter, and open body language. A person’s attitudes are conveyed best through a combination of all these.

The authors go on to describe another set of neurons called spindle cells. These may be associated with the leadership functions we call “evaluations from the gut” or intuition. These cells are four times larger than ordinary brain cells and link with many others, suggesting that they may energize our social guidance system. They kick in when we’re trying to make judgments about someone, such as their trustworthiness or “fit” for a job. When these neurons work together with the mirror neurons, the result is the creation of rapport between two or more people.

Finally, the authors mention oscillators, brain cells that coordinate people physically by regulating how and when their bodies move together. This gives terrific support for the notion of “mirroring” found in the principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a method used by psychotherapists to build rapport with their clients to facilitate self-disclosure and popularized in the work of Anthony Robbins. You really see these neurons in action between dance partners, athletes in team sports, and, yes, lovers!

Next time you see a charismatic leader on the national or international stage, watch for evidence of these neurons firing. True, these leaders have learned the behaviors that build smooth interpersonal relationships, but those behaviors are backed up by this “Biology of Leadership.”

The authors conclude the article by showing us a way forward for more effective interpersonal and social interaction. They write, “The only way to develop your social circuitry effectively is to undertake the hard work of changing your behavior” and “Mental preparation activates the social circuitry of the brain, strengthening the neural connections you need to act effectively; that’s why Olympic athletes put hundreds of hours into mental review of their moves.”

The question you may be asking is, “Am I doomed because of my inherited brain circuitry?” The authors have a reassuring answer. They write, “Because our behavior creates and develops neural networks, we are not necessarily prisoners of our genes and our early childhood experiences. Leaders can change… if they are ready to put in the effort.” Any time you learn something new, the neural networks in your brain change—after all, the information has to be stored somewhere! Your brain is what you make it and neural resources are recruited for those activities you practice the most.

So the message is… Work those neurons! Practice skillful, other-directed communication! You and others will really “resonate” with each other.

Yours in good communication,

Neal & Jan Palmer

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To all our friends and clients of CEI…


First, we’re very excited to announce that we have just released a new DVD of our classic presentation “BEYOND WORDS: Building Your Personal Credibility Through Nonverbal Communication.” This 1.5-hour seminar with PowerPoints was recently presented to a group of 60 CEOs of corporations in Southern California. We think you’ll like it. For those of you who have seen this presentation before, we hope it offers you a great refresher.

Here’s our message on the back of the box:

Become more successful with clients, prospects, and colleagues!

Over 90% of your communication is nonverbal
(positive or negative).

What messages are YOU sending?

What makes some people able to get their ideas enthusiastically accepted, while others are bypassed? Why are some people more believable than others? How do smart leaders gain people’s confidence? The answer is… by harnessing the power of nonverbal communication! People in your business and professional life are far more influenced—positively or negatively—by how you communicate nonverbally than by the words you say. In this presentation, Dr. Janet Larsen Palmer and Dr. Neal Larsen Palmer, principals of Communication Excellence Institute and nationally known experts on nonverbal communication, share practical techniques you can use to stand, gesture, and reach out to others nonverbally for greater impact and persuasiveness. You’ll be excited to try out everything you learn in this highly interactive presentation.
The Palmers coach university presidents, lawyers, business leaders, expert witnesses, politicians, fund raisers, and motivational speakers to use their nonverbal communication to make the greatest persuasive impact.

If you’d like to order our DVD, please call our office at 800-410-4CEI (4234). We’re working to get our webstore online, so in the meantime, we’ll be happy to take your order over the phone. The cost of our DVD is $29.95 plus tax and shipping & handling ($4.95).

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Next, Jan and I have been approved as Vistage speakers. Vistage (formerly TEC International) is a mutual support and mentoring organization for CEOs of $30-50M+ corporations. They have chapters all over the world and hire heavily screened speakers for their monthly meetings. We just gave our inaugural speech “BEYOND WORDS: Building Your Personal Credibility Through Nonverbal Communication” (featured on our new DVD) to a Vistage group in Southern California, and received their “thumbs-up.” As you can imagine, we’re very excited to speak to many more Vistage groups.

And that's our People Skills for Skilled People for today!

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