How we communicate: Layers of Communication


We communicate so many things about ourselves in so many different ways.

Communication between beings goes far beyond words and faces, it is something that permeates through to our most primitive layers, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual. It is important to understand these layers and make sure that all of these channels of communication are saying what we want. In this first article we’re going to look generally at all of the elements that contribute to how we are received.

As humans we have evolved into very smart and complex creatures. Our complexity still exceeds our understanding today and as such it is easy to forget that we were once forest dwellers sitting in the middle of the food chain. We had to learn how to stay alive amongst the constant threat of danger and in doing so we became very good at taking in a lot of information as efficiently as possible and without even realising it. This is what gives us our intuition, our gut feeling, and what can influence our decisions without us even knowing.

We can find ourselves feeling a certain way about a situation or a person and sometimes not quite knowing why.

We have the ability and tendency to be influenced by things that we don’t even realise are happening around us. For instance, getting a momentary cool breeze on the back of your neck, even something as simple as that can affect your thinking, so imagine how prominent the effects of someone standing a certain way, using a certain tone or pulling a particular face are. We notice all of these small factors which contribute to an overall picture that we formulate and manifest in the form of a feeling or impression. Like brushstrokes that make up a painting. They are all layers of communication and they are all important.

We are social creatures, we have evolved as such and are therefore pretty good at living amongst one another.

Even though some might complain about it, the fact is that there are billions of people on the earth that generally live in harmony and get on with one another. This ability is pretty amazing, over the millennia we have evolved the ability to ‘figure one another out’ in a short space of time through various psychological phenomena. This ability has derived purely, as any evolutionary change does, to make us better at staying alive. We can sense danger, we can sense disease and illness and we can sense when the tension in a room can be cut with a knife. 

We all communicate the same way; there’s a sort of universal understanding when it comes to nonverbal communication.

We have all evolved together and are the same species, we are all made up of the same basic stuff and are therefore able to understand one another’s nonverbal cues. It’s a bit like how you expect all Apple products to work together - they may be different products, but you expect them to all function pretty much the same way.

As time has gone by, our communication and interaction has become more complex since the days of living in trees: speech, writing and reading to name but a few. Our abilities to absorb lots of information about our surroundings may not seem as important nowadays, as tiger ambushes aren’t a daily threat, but they still remain and they still have an immense effect.  

Physically and visually is probably the most obvious and easily detectable way in which we communicate.

We wear our emotions just as we wear our clothes. The way we stand up, our body language and our facial expressions are all brushstrokes added to the detailed picture. This is something we can see from a distance, and without any interaction other than visual.  Whether we realise it or not, we take all of this information in and begin to paint that picture before we even know what’s happening. More brushstrokes, more layers. 

Close up we gain an even better understanding of someone. We pick up on smaller physical cues such as facial expressions, eye contact, their hands and their feet. Even if we’re not all specialist CIA interrogators with a detailed understanding of what each minor movement might mean, our inner decoder will decipher the movements and sounds of the other person and interoperate them into an understanding of the situation. Think back to the time when you’ve finished a conversation with someone and turned to your friend to ask ‘was it just me or was that a bit awkward?’

The tone of voice is another; before we even formed words we were able to express ourselves using tone and volume.

It is actually these features that make us so effective at communication. Going back to another article, you can say the same things in many different ways, but the most effective way is in its simplest form with a lot of heart and soul in the delivery. Now this is an example of how important expression is compared with the actual words. Obviously the words are important, but what we’re saying here is that we don’t only take emotional or social cues from words, we take them from how they are expressed. When you’re painting your canvas, you’ll have a bigger brush and bolder colour for expression and a smaller brush for actual words. 

From person to person little habits and quirks change, but we all have them. I’m sure we all have a face we pull when we’re glad or miffed, a habit like a stretch or cough, maybe we play with our hands, or less obvious things like increased blinking. Poker players would probably call this a tell. Again, we are human so all these things are normal, in fact,  these again are what make us so effective at communicating, our innate ability to keep adding brushstrokes or layers to an ever-complex picture. 

Eye contact.

In fact, your eyes in general. We’ve all heard that the eyes are the window to the soul, they give so much information about our current thoughts and feelings. How much our pupils have dilated, how wide open they are or whether we’re squinting, where they’re looking, how long we hold our gaze in any given direction. All of these offer more and more brush strokes to the picture we paint in the back of our minds. So much so that you’ll see some people, poker players or businessmen wearing sunglasses to hide their eyes as they do give so much information. Further to that, upon seeing a pair of squinting or angry looking eyes, our heart rate will actually increase. That is an involuntary response, a prime example of how our body will see a nonverbal cue and respond, adding another brushstroke or layer. 

This picture that we paint, we see through a lens.

This lens comes in the shape of clothes, presentation, grooming and physical attractiveness. All of these attributes affect what we perceive and how we add our brushstrokes. A bit like if you wear blue sunglasses and you see everything with a blue tint. They are perhaps the palette we use when painting the picture. Rightly or wrongly we hold those who are better presented in higher regard than those who are not. 

Awareness of all of these layers of communication is essential in being an effective leader, trusting your instincts will serve you well and being aware of your own emotions will keep you planted in any situation. And remember, by just by looking sharp and presenting yourself well you can afford yourself a nice lens through which people paint your picture.