George Lucas Educational Foundation

Educators: Are You Aware of Your Hidden Communication?

Educators: Are You Aware of Your Hidden Communication?

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It’s been my experience that many problems occurring between people and across organizations are often the result of poor communication. The old saying goes, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While the saying was likely intended to teach young children to ignore the cutting words of a taunting peer, the fact is, words have the potential to hurt….a lot. Communication can be the most lethal weapon a person wields. It can start wars and sink organizations. But thankfully, it has the potential to help a lot as well. Communication can act as a powerful salve to comfort those distraught or rally large groups of people to pursue the greater good (e.g. Martin Luther King advocating for peace and equality). Given the sheer power of communication, it is a wonder there is not more focus in education (K-12 and college) on teaching people how to more effectively communicate. In my first article, The Art of Tung Fu: Tips for Effective Communication, I made the point that it’s not “whacha say, but how you say it…and when!” In this article, I’ll move beyond body language and tone of voice. Many people are aware these forms of communication have an impact on others. Instead, I’ll focus on some behaviors that are more subtle. In particular, what you “aren’t saying,” or nonverbal behaviors that I’ll call Ninja Communication.

The Inadvertent Ninja

People are often mindful of what they are going to say before they say it. Unfortunately, many people are not nearly as deliberate with the many subtle nuisances of their delivery. Moreover, there are many, many folks who are completely unaware of various aspects of their nonverbal communication. Like a warrior lurking in the shadows and waiting to attack, nonverbal communication is akin to an invisible ninja anticipating the call to arms. Ineffective communicators are unaware of their hidden ninja; therefore they put little thought into managing it. However, the most effective communicators are well aware of their hidden ninja. In fact, the best leaders and communicators employ their ninja to positively impact those around them in a meaningful way. The good news is, the hidden ninja is not mystical. It is simply behavior. Some of these behaviors are obvious. Others, are micro-behaviors, if you will. Stealthy and almost invisible like a ninja. Master communicators recognize and understand the impact of these behaviors on others. Let’s shine a light on a couple of these ninja behaviors lurking in the dark. If people become more aware of their presence, they might be able understand how they impact those around them and be more effective in their communications.


If you work in a larger organization, you probably have to make an appointment to see those in senior leadership. In some cases, you might be able to show up at their office. But like most folks, you’d likely knock on the door prior to entering. This is probably a result of your respect for senior leader and their time. But what happens when senior leadership seeks you out? Do they knock, or do they simply enter your office? These behaviors might be inadvertently (or purposely!) indicating different things to you. One might be saying “I respect your time,” while the other might be communicating “I’m the boss!” Or, honestly, it might be neither. Perhaps the leader is simply excited to come see you. The point here is, being aware of the potential impact of these behaviors can be very important.

Let’s take a look at the example of arriving on time. I’m a pretty punctual person. I was raised to believe arriving on time for a meeting (or even early) conveys respect or perhaps demonstrates the meeting is important. In contrast, missing a meeting or arriving late might be perceived as a sign of apathy or disrespect. Consider this: How might a hiring committee perceive a candidate who arrived early for an interview as opposed to a few minutes late? Be aware of the impact of your timing as well as your own bias related it. This is a powerful form of communication.


Eye contact can be interpreted in many ways. For example, in both humans and primates, gaze can be used to impose dominance. Specifically, the length of time one gazes can mean distinctive things in different cultures or under various conditions. Fleeting gazes might be perceived as a sign of insecurity, or perhaps interpreted as “suspicious.” In the United States we are taught to look the other person in the eye when we talk as a sign of respect; however, in other cultures and subcultures, this same behavior can be taken the opposite way. In negotiations, lack of eye contact can be seen as a sign of insecurity; in the “face-off” prior to a boxing match, it can be perceived by some fighters as submissive.

What about gazing down at people? Like literally standing over them and looking down at them? For some this can be threatening, especially if an individual is unfamiliar and perhaps relatively large. When training adults to work with children, I often recommend they lower themselves to the child’s level when correcting misbehavior to be most effective while maintaining a nurturing relationship.

Have you ever been in an elevator? What are most of the people doing? If you said looking straight ahead or staring at their feet, you’ve had the same common experiences I have. The golden rule in an elevator is DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT!!! And if you do, you’d better look away quick…otherwise you’ll be perceived as a weirdo. Or perhaps the eye-gaze police will be waiting for you at the next floor to give you a ticket for not following the eye gaze rule!

Body Movement

Have you ever observed somebody with their shoulders drooped, head hanging down, as they slowly ambulate along their way? What does their movement communicate to you? To many, they may appear sad or down-trodden. However, perhaps they just completed a rigorous work out. How about fidgeting? Somebody might rub their head as a self-soothing behavior they habitually apply when they are fatigued; however, others may perceive this behavior as a sign of frustration or discomfort under different conditions. Have you ever seen somebody bouncing their leg up and down? Are they excited or anxious?

If you ever watched people move around the office, you may have seen that one guy who languidly strolls down the hallways with a smile on his face. Now this guy can be the most productive person in the organization. But if you don’t know this, the word SLACKER might echo through caverns of your brain. In contrast, how about the guy who seems to be speed walking around the office? You know him. Papers fly off the shelves as a result of the gusts generated by his rapid movement. You’d practically need to be on a bicycle to keep up with him. To many, these behaviors might convey that he is a “busy” man. However, he might be the biggest slacker in the office. Or perhaps he’s simply seeking to avoid those around him. Or…like a little kid, he has a habit of waiting until the last second to use the bathroom. The purpose of these subtle ninja behaviors (i.e. body movement) is often left up to the perception of those in proximity who are witnessing these behaviors.


Speaking of proximity, have you ever had somebody speak to you too close? How did it make you feel? And how are those feelings impacted by the history with that person? When somebody gets close, our history with them typically dictates whether we perceive this is an invasion of personal space or a comforting act reserved for those we have deeper relationships with.

When working with behaviorally challenged kids, I’ve noticed some staff tended to stand further away from some students. While too standing too close to people can be seen as threatening, standing too far away in some cases can be perceived as fear. Under certain conditions, appearing “fearful” through increased proximity can actually invite the very same behaviors we are fearful of.

I used to witness this is some of high-crime neighborhoods I worked in when I was a youth therapist. Given my boxing background and years spent living in similar neighborhoods, I felt relatively comfortable. I liked to walk through the parking lot and say “what’s up,” or high-five some of the folks on the stairs as I made my way toward the apartment where my client was living. Sometimes I’d get a big smile or somebody might say “what’s up G.” In contrast I’d witness new therapists and case managers take great care to remain a “safe” distance from these same folks. They’d park at the other end of the building and use the stairs located furthest away. While this might seem intuitively safe, it might have communicated something different to these neighborhood folks. In fact, these avoidance behaviors might inadvertently catch the eye of those with predatory behaviors. This is a bad match.


Ok, guilty as charged. Attire is not one of the areas I’ve accelerated in. If it were up to me, I’d walk around wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. Don’t get me wrong, I dress professionally. But it’s typically “casual professional.” I like to feel comfortable. And suits…forget it!!! I have a larger than average neck. Perhaps, as a child, I was put into shirts too small for my neck. Or maybe suits that were hot. But for whatever reason, I just don’t like wearing suits. In the rare occasions I do (e.g. public speaking), I don’t wear ties.

It is always my greatest hope that folks judge me by my impact and content of character, not the color of my suit (or lack thereof!); however, I recognize people are judging me (at least initially) by my attire. I might believe this is a cultural faux pas, but it is a cultural norm (at least in business or here in the states). As such, attire has the potential to communicate all sorts of things to different people. Things like ability, economic status, education, character, and trustworthiness. Since perception is reality for many, your dressing behaviors have great potential to influence how others perceive and treat you.

Behavioral Intelligence

There’s been a lot of research supporting the many benefits of Emotional Intelligence, or “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” And the research makes sense. I only wish that it were called Behavioral Intelligence. In essence, our thoughts and feelings are “private behaviors” that we personally observe and interpret based on our history. As such, it is important to recognize how these “private behaviors” impact our observable behavior. Moreover, handling interpersonal relationships “judiciously” might be better described as being a good observer of your behavior, the behavior of others, the impact of your behavior on others, and behaving in ways that yield the best results. These include your ninja behaviors.

There are many cultural norms that influence how your nonverbal (ninja) behaviors are perceived. The point is, your body is a like a transmitter that is constantly giving out signals that are being interpreted by those around. Be aware of your ninja behavior. And when possible, use it for the greater good!

Selected References

Adler, R., Rosenfeld, L., & Proctor, R. (2010). Interplay: The process of interpersonal communication. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.

Matsumoto, D., Frank, M., & Hwang H. (2013). Nonverbal communication: Science and applications. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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