Contributor: Gina Barnett
What is subtext?
It is the unspoken between people in the midst of an exchange. It is everywhere and it is a vital part of our communication. It can be as subtle as a millisecond glance between two people to establish who will exit a door first, or as overt as dismissive hand gesture in the midst of a negotiation. Subtext is communicated by both small and large gestures, with smiles, glances, hand movements, vocal tone and body positions.
Subtext feels innate, but it is learned. It can make, or break, any exchange!
In business, subtext can be influenced by multiple factors: relationships, gender, age, appearance, power dynamics, yesterday’s meeting… The question is, “What is driving a conversation?” Is it the words spoken, or the unspoken ways those words are expressed? We can never, nor should we, eliminate subtext, it is a vital part of our communication. To understand subtext, ask yourself 3 questions:
- What is dominating the exchange, the words spoken or the subtext?
- If the subtext dominates, is it undermining the exchange?
- How can the unspoken be artfully brought into the conversation?
The ability to identify and articulate the sub-textual signals in any exchange is an essential skill to develop. Begin just by observing how quickly and naturally we send signals to each other in our routine, day-to-day encounters. For instance, at a meeting you speak and silence descends. Moments later someone repeats what you said and winds up getting all the credit. A colleague waves a hand and cuts you off before you’ve finished speaking. A team member always looks away as you approach. Many of these signals go by so quickly, there is no simple way to respond. But we take these messages in, we see them, feel them, and we often ruminate about them. Why? Because they are indirect ways of communicating, they can hurt and – more critical – they can be misinterpreted.
What to do?
Use curious, non-confrontational language: The skill to navigate the unspoken takes time to master. It takes courage to speak up when the communication is dominated by subtext, but the most essential skill is having a robust vocabulary that can describe what is happening in a way that is neither defensive nor aggressive.
For example, your business partner calls you in for discussion and you notice he is frowning and looks perturbed. This expression may have everything or nothing to do with you. But how will you know unless you ask? If you don’t inquire and just assume that the person is upset with you, you will rapidly become stressed and anxious. That’s the emotional state in which you’ll enter the conversation. In other words, the subtext will have already taken over with not a word yet exchanged. What if instead of assuming, you were to ask:
“Is this a good time?”
“Why do you ask?” your partner might reply.
“Your expression. Is everything okay?”
Ask, don’t assume: This is open-ended curiosity. You are not automatically assuming the frown is about you. Perhaps the boss just got off an upsetting phone call; maybe he’s got a toothache. There can be thousands of reasons behind a frown. By asking, and not automatically assuming, you are bringing the subtext into the text and enabling the conversation to move forward from there, instead from your worry.
Carry On: Once a sub-textual signal is brought to light, move on. Trust that what may have been muddying the exchange has been cleared away. If it hasn’t and you feel it persists, just keep observing, try not to project, and trust that in time, if you stay open, curious, and non-confrontational, another opportunity will arise to bring up what you sense.
To navigate subtext, begin to observe how much there is, seek language that can describe what you see in ways that are curious, open, and non-judgmental. Ask, don’t assume. Investigate. Carry on. The better you get at identifying the subtle and profoundly impactful sub-textual signals all around, the more effectively you’ll be able to manage them.The better you get at identifying sub-textual signals the more effectively u’ll be able to… Click To Tweet
Gina Barnett is author of Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success (McGraw-Hill, June 2015)