Communicating in silence; lessons from The Artist

May 10th, 2012

I recently went to see the film The Artist  (I know everyone else probably saw it ages ago and  I am a bit behind the times). I was not quite sure what to expect, particularly with all the hype, however it is one of the best films I have seen in a long time. I was totally captivated throughout the whole movie, quite some feat given that there are very few spoken words.

This got me thinking about how much can be conveyed and communicated without speech and about how much of what we communicate is so much more than the words we speak.

This is important in a workplace conflict or mediation context where it is necessary to understand the needs and interests of the parties. The issues in dispute in a workplace conflict are the real tip of the iceberg, it is what lies beneath that is important. The real issues relate to how people engage and interact with each other and how they are feeling and reacting to this is important for both parties to understand.  This does not mean that the parties have to agree or accept the others position but they do need to gain an understanding of the others perspective.

To gain this understanding it is necessary to listen to what is beneath the words, to look for clues in an individuals demeanor, gestures, body positioning, facial expressions, eye contact and also tone of voice.  Some studies suggest that 93% of our messages are conveyed by tone of voice and facial expressions and 7% by the words spoken. It is clear that we express our emotions and attitudes more non-verbally than verbally so the nonverbal clues are vitally important to understanding the underlying issues.

Real, deep listening is hard and takes some effort. Listening to the words is hard enough in itself but to listen to all the emotions and feelings is even harder.  It requires sustained and full attention without letting your mind wander as to what’s for tea tonight or what your next question is. Multi tasking is not an option here and even taking the briefest of notes can distract you from what is being communicated. The skill of the mediator or conflict coach is to listen empathetically and to then to reflect back what is being communicated between the parties in an appropriate way and so that their understanding of  each others perspective is deepened.

In the Artist there was the benefit of atmospheric music, lighting and the artistic composition of scenes, (and a very cute dog) which are not available in a normal interactions with individuals. Without these clues it is even more important to engage in deep empathetic listening; a vital skill for anyone involved in dealing with workplace conflict either as a line manager, HR professional, conflict coach or mediator.

For further information about training courses available on conflict management or difficult conversations please visit

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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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