Honest Communication: The Unconscious Signals Behind Our Words

Have you ever had the experience of talking to someone and you start to feel that person is saying one thing but means another? Have you arrived at work in a bad mood and noticed that everyone else suddenly seems to be developing the same bad mood? What you are experiencing is the powerful effects of honest signals. These are the unspoken and unconscious ways that we communicate with each other to form the social circuits that our highly social species thrives on.

According to Dr. Pentland of MIT, honest signals are part of separate communication channel that we, apes, and other social species use to coordinate group interactions. They are honest in the sense that they are a reliable indicator of our true intentions. There are number of honest signals but Dr. Pentland writes that the following four are most used by humans:
1) Influence which is indicated by how one person’s speech dominates in setting the tone and yielding to others when they want to speak.
2) Mimicry or the reflexive copying of another person’s gestures.
3) Activity which is the intensity of our actions as we speak.
4) Consistency or how we control the variations in emphasis as we speak.
The next time you are watching people speak, try to observe these four signals. With practice you will become quite adept at picking out who has the most influence and who is most consistent in their speech.

These four signals combine together into social roles. We also have four social roles:
1) Exploring – high activity and variable emphasis and rhythm that indicates that the person is open to new ideas.
2) Active listening – activity level is suppressed with variable emphasis indicating that the person is making an extra effort to focus attention on the speaker.
3) Teaming – low influence, ample mimicry, and consistent emphasis toward the perceived leader.
4) Leading – high influence, high activity, and high consistency that dovetails into the teaming behaviors of the rest of the group.

So, how does knowing this help you? The first thing to realize is that the signaling is two way. Thanks to specialized brain cells called mirror neurons, we form feedback loops that help us to understand each other through the honest signals communication channel. By consciously noting the four social roles we can determine what impact our communication is having on other people. For example, we can determine by the person’s activity level, their level of mimicry, and consistency whether they are actively listening to us or are just humoring us.

Now we are naturally adept at the first step already even though we are not consciously aware of why we feel that way. But consciously being able to identify the social role leads us to the second step where we can use our honest signals to shape the other person’s (or even group) behavior. You may need some training in method acting but you can learn to produce the appropriate honest signals that can alter the social circuit toward your desired communication goal. At the very least you can recognize when someone else is manipulating their honest signals to influence you.

Several companies have already adapted Dr. Pentland’s research to study how their organizational members communicate with each other. Using sociometers and mobile phone apps thousands of hours of interaction data has been captured. Then, in a process called reality mining, researchers sift through the data to predict which business proposals will be accepted, how a certain person will react in negotiations, or even where a person will be at a particular part of the day. I am not aware of any government agencies using honest signals and reality mining but I wouldn’t be surprised if the intelligence agencies have honest signals programs in place.

Honest signaling is one part of the emerging network science field. In future postings I will explore other aspects of network science and how it can help with 21st Century public management. My next post will deal with a communication theory that was way ahead of its time when published 15 years ago but now has major impact on understanding social networking.

Buchanan, M. (Autumn 2007). The science of subtle signals. Strategy+Business. Retrieved December 5th, 2010 from http://web.media.mit.edu/~sandy/Honest-Signals-sb48_07307.pdf.

Pentland, A. (2008). Honest signals: How they shape our world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dr. Pentland has a wide range of fascinating research which is listed at his personal website. Well worth the visit.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Bill Brantley

@Vlad – Thank you for commenting! 🙂

Practitioners of reality mining (RM) argue that their method of gathering data is superior to current social network analysis (SNA) because SNA relies on people self-reporting their interactions while reality mining provides a more immediate and objective way to measure and map interactions.

An immediate use of honest signals that occurs to me is in training employees that engage with the public. Being able to monitor their own signals and the citizen’s signals could make the communication process go smoother. At the very least being aware of the signal can help the employee avoid or mitigate a confrontation.

Victoria A. Runkle

Thank you for the post. Our organization, like many public orgs, have faced and continue to confront difficult issues. The statement is ‘morale is low.’ What part do I, as a leader, add to that. This posting was very thought provoking.