Sunday, October 23, 2011

Does Language Matter When Non-Verbal Communication Is Louder?

Much is written about non-verbal communication in the abstract, but the Republican Presidential Debates are a showcase for the visual power of facial expression and gestures (body language) that accompany words.

According to newspaper reports, there has been bad blood between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney for years. But the extent of the animosity became apparent and was on full display during an exchange between the two men on Oct. 18 at the Western Republican Presidential Debate in Las Vegas.

I suspect that Rick Perry’s accusation that Romney hired an illegal worker to do yard work was designed to throw Romney off his carefully choreographed debate game. Surprisingly, what started out as a technique to put Romney on the defensive also succeeded in getting Rick Perry visibly upset. The combined negative body language was instructive and often painful to watch.

In the YouTube video “Perry and Romney Get Personal at Debate,” the non-verbal communication between the two cancels out whatever words are being spoken. Their interchange rapidly deteriorated into a face-off when both men turned inward and glared directly at each other. (Try testing the impact of their non-verbal communication by viewing the video with the sound off!)

As the rhetoric escalated, Romney – obviously very frustrated at not being able to speak –reached over to Perry and put his left hand on Perry’s shoulder. Did Romney make the gesture in an attempt to control, shut down or dominate the situation? Whatever his reason, the touching was inappropriate and an inexcusable violation of Perry’s personal space. As I watched, I wondered if the entire episode would end in a slugging match with one of them being decked.

So what was gained from a confrontation in which both men demonstrated a style of communication which was decidedly not presidential? Although Rick Perry came off as a bit of an impatient bully, he gambled and won on this one. Admittedly not strong on debating skills, Perry pushed Mitt Romney out of his comfort zone; and in doing so, he showed his own strength as someone who stood his ground and would not be silenced. In contrast, Romney sputtered, raised his voice and darted his eyes wildly as he searched frantically to secure help from the moderator, Anderson Cooper.

Observing how our presidential candidates communicate non-verbally is important for voters. Romney is a practiced and skilled debater who has methodically disciplined himself to respond to petty issues and occasional confrontations with clear answers and a cool demeanor. These learned skills have made him a generally effective communicator.

But it is less controlled and generally unscripted forums like the Las Vegas debate that allow voters to observe those aspiring to win the party nomination. Language matters, but watching non-verbal communication is extremely important in vetting candidates.

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