We all want it, we get into disagreements over it, and it makes a difference in our workplace and personal relationships; communication – it truly is the core of what we want. Effective communication is more than just passing a message across – it involves helping the recipient understand and act on the message. The weight of effective communication isn’t just on the shoulders of great leaders, it is an integral part of an evolving social process for everyone.

Mastering the art of communication includes being attuned to subtle social signals and these reveal a lot more than words alone. Interestingly, research has revealed that facial and other nonverbal expressions play a huge part in conveying meaning much more than words do. In fact, researchers point out that social signals are a significant, but mostly uncharted, communication channel. Unfortunately, our ability to detect social context in communication has deteriorated over the years and that is often evident in ineffective communications in business, relationships, family etc.

Since the iPhone was released back in January 2007, over 11 years ago, only half of our society, perhaps less around the world, communicated via phone call. And less than that had access to communication outside their immediate circle. Now, it’s been reported today just over 85.6 percent of our population communicate through a smartphone; by a phone call or sending text messages. And with so many more people connected across the globe it is vital we pay attention to key social signals. To put the need for effective communication into context, try traveling to another part of the world where you don’t speak the native language – and yet we find a way to communicate.

Alex Pentlandof MIT’s Human Dynamic lab famously explained in his book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our Worldthat careful attention to the flow of communication, including gestures, timing, variability, pace and the energy level of interactions reveals several examples of honest signals. Advances in technology, especially in the field of wireless communications and digital sensors, have made it possible to keenly observe human behaviour at a level that was not previously possible.

Pentland and his colleagues developed a device called a sociometer to measure activity, mimicry, consistency, and synchrony using infrared technology. Although the device does not record or capture actual words, it can measure:

  • The energy level of an interaction
  • The length of the interaction
  • Levels of engagement
  • Physical distance


Pentland also reveals four main honest signals exhibited during interaction and how they can be measured effectively;

  • Influence
  • Mimicry
  • Activity
  • Consistency



Influence is an indicator of dominance and it comes into play especially when you need to persuade others. When you control the pace of the conversation you stand a better chance of influencing its outcome. You can influence a conversation by varying the speed of your speech thereby eliminating gaps in conversation. These minute variations in pace or pattern of interaction are perceived by others subconsciously and can point out to the other person that you are attentive, insistent, and interested in directing the flow of the conversation. In a sense, you are controlling how and when the other person responds. You can measure your level of Influence by the extent to which you sway the other person’s pattern of speaking to match your pattern.


Mimicry denotes the reflexive copying of one person by another during a conversation resulting in a spontaneous back and forth trading of smiles, hands, and head movements. This mirroring is done automatically and reflexively. The mirror neurons in our brains hardwire us to copy smiles, hands and head movement, pitch and vocal timing. Mimicry behaviours play an important role in building trust and empathy. Spontaneous and genuine mimicry can actually improve negotiation results by up to 30 percent and is an effective skill in financial interactions.


Activity refers to the amount of interest and excitement you invest in a conversation. It is usually evident with increased energy levels in a conversation which signals your level of interest and attention. There are subtle signals we give off when genuinely interested in a conversation. Outward signs of nervous activity such as fidgeting, talking quickly and gestures will emerge especially when you are genuinely interested in a conversation and the eventual outcome. If you find out that your conversation lacks energy, you can increase the activity level by asking questions that will give insight into what interests the other person. This process helps to create engagement and connection (competitive advantage for salespeople). 


Consistency refers to variations in the pace of your speech and body movements during a conversation. Consistency levels often vary when you have different thoughts and emotions going on in your mind simultaneously. As a result, your speech becomes irregular, unevenly paced and accentuated. Consistency is often a function of mental focus. When you are focused, your speech and movement are smoother and regular and affords you greater variability which may indicate that you are open to influence from others. 

The Bottom Line

It may be difficult to perceive these signals if we do not pay attention to them. These signals can help you pierce into people’s goals, values, and intentions. Understanding that communication is socially situated will move you to pay attention to social signals and will help you to fully understand influence and social context. Ultimately you will be able to communicate effectively and enhance your decision-making ability. Strive to observe your conversation to detect these four social signals and see practical ways you can increase your awareness of key social signals so that you can communicate better. When we are clear with our communication we get what we want, there are less disagreements, and our workplace and personal relationships become more meaningful. Communicating better leads to better engagement, which leads to a stronger connection, and with strong connection others are more likely to trust you, buy from you, and you will build credibility over the long-haul.



About the author: Kyle Kalloo is the Chief Executive Officer, Business Coach with Change My Life Coaching and Strategic Leader. Through his management training and experience with McDonalds, Famous Players (Paramount) and WestJet, and all of the ongoing learning and development he’s completed, Kyle has refined and perfected skills and processes and is eager to share how to execute them efficiently to help individuals and companies achieve even more of their dreams. 83% of Kyle’s business comes from referrals. https://www.changemylifecoaching.ca and https://strategicleader.ca