Readers respond to "Secret Communication Skill - Tells" column


Readers are responding to a recent column about studying other people’s “tells,” those unconscious body language signals we all send when we are emotional—nervous, irritated, defensive, or any other reaction we don’t want to openly convey. Here are a few: 

I have been told I get red on my neck and chest when I’m upset. Men can hide their reactions under a shirt, but not so for a female at work. Any advice about how to manage this, besides wearing a turtleneck? 

Here’s another: 

I loved your recent article on “tells,” those mannerisms that give others so much information about us!  As a trained counselor I am very aware of others’ mannerisms, and often feel in larger groups that I can get overwhelmed because I’m getting SO much meta-information and also have an over-abundance of empathy.  Do you have any suggestions for how to be LESS tuned in to the “noise” from others?  It sounds odd, I know…but at times being a strong empath is exhausting - especially when working with others who are troubled, in pain, or in crisis.  Part of my self-care involves a lot of quiet time spent away from others…probably for this reason.
“Tells” are tattle-tales. We don’t want them to whisper our true emotions and reveal ourselves to others. But they have a life of their own. Our automatic, biological response betrays us and there isn’t much you can do about it (unless you are a sociopath, I suppose). 

After I wrote the article, friends and colleagues commented that I used them (and myself) as examples. One of my colleagues said, “Ok, I know which one I am! “I’m going to speak in a baritone from now on when I’m pushing my idea.” Someone else said, “I’m going to lock my hands in my lap when I talk!” My daughter said, “I’m going to start watching how much you pick at your cuticles when we’re together!” It was all in good fun. 

So, to the reader who wants to control her blotching neck and chest, I can’t offer much in the way of solutions. However, I do know that people who worry about turning red, end up turning even redder! Even though people may notice, they will quickly refocus on what you are saying, rather than studying your blotches (or other tells), so stop worrying about it. 

Many people notice the emotional “tell” of someone who is stirred up, but it doesn’t usually hurt the conversation. Instead, it can help the communication, if the person registers that the other individual is emotional, or under some pressure, and adjusts to dial down the intensity. 

The second reader, above, who is the empathetic counselor, and is hyper-aware of other people’s tells, has really found her calling. Can you think of a better profession for someone with her gift? It reminds me of the “I can see dead people” line from the movie, The Sixth Sense. But that gift becomes a burden when you are bombarded endlessly and can’t turn it off in a social setting. 

I don’t think turning it off is the answer…I’m not sure you can. But like in the movie sited above, you can harness it for good. For example, in a social setting I often use an obvious tell to help me tune in to the right question to ask, or subject to avoid. I don’t have to solve a problem or make a speech. I just want to make the people I’m with comfortable and enjoy our conversation. 

Getting away from people is a good way to recharge and take care of yourself. Hobbies that feed your soul, such as reading light fiction, gardening, playing with a pet, and exercise are all good ways to dial it down and take care of yourself instead of always being there for others. 

Another approach is to practice compartmentalization. Many people have learned to drop a wall between work and home, for example. When you leave work, close off that part of your day and tell yourself you are going to approach the other part of your day with a different attitude. Catch yourself when you start down a “counseling-type” of conversation in a social setting. You can learn to tone it down, even if you can’t turn it off. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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