Why We Need to Talk to Each Other More

M.I.T. Media Lab professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland has written an extraordinary book entitled Honest Signals. He argues that there are a number of unconscious, non-verbal cues that robustly predict a human’s future actions and behavior. Using a device called a sociometer, which looks like a small smartphone, Pentland and other researchers tracked these patterns of “honest signals,” such as “what tone of voice they use; whether they face one an- other; how much they gesture; how much they talk, listen, and interrupt; and even their levels of extro-version and empathy,” of various people in companies and universities.

Pentland writes, “In sales, negotiation, dating, hiring, and many other situations, the signaling associated with these social roles accurately predicts who will succeed, and who will not.” When pitching a business plan to venture capitalists, for instance, the dividing factor between ventures that get funded and those that don’t, is not what the entrepreneurs are saying, but how they are saying it. Quite the opposite of what you learned in school.

Our interactions with one another also provide some unlikely answers. According to the research, creative people, especially, thrive on face-to-face interaction and interact specifically with people in an “interconnected network.” More oscillation between centralized and interconnected patterns of communications yielded higher productivity, in an experiment in the marketing division of a German bank. Pentland says that we now know that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. Successful people communicate more, talk more, listen more, act positive more often, and reach out to sources outside of their group more. In everyday society, we need to talk to each other on a regular basis. Jared Diamond, in his book The World Until Yesterday, recounts in his visits to traditional societies in New Guinea, that he couldn’t ever fall asleep, because nobody would ever end their conversations at night.

Mimicry, a signal emphasized in the book, is part of the learning process. In school, if adults mimicked empathy and trust, children will slowly adapt to these social cues unconsciously over time.

As sociometers become more readily available, organizations, businesses, companies, and everyday folk can begin to tweak their behaviors and interactions to be more productive.

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2 Comments on “Why We Need to Talk to Each Other More”

  1. Bridget says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is really, really interesting!

  2. Sujaykumar Bhad says:

    I think our complexes (both superiority and inferiority) accumulated by our “cultural conditioning” play important role in how much we “open” ourselves to others. And hence, how we communicate with rest of the world.

    Ego and Fear – the best practical indicators of those complexes are not so easy to overcome.

    What you are saying makes sense or is rather plausible. But, from perspective of education system – how can we develop a system where we make students talk, listen, participate, interact – IF we don’t recognize how they are conditioned!


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