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Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not so long ago, I asked one of our employees about her week-end. She said, “I met a guy who knows you.” I responded, “Oh, really? Who was it?” She couldn’t remember his last name but proceeded to tell me about their brief interaction. “Yeah, I told him where I worked and he asked if I knew Phil Berry. I said yes, then he hesitated for a moment and said, ‘He’s an intense guy.’ “

We laughed about it for a moment but I wondered, is that a good thing? Maybe or maybe not. I was able to figure out who she met but my recollection of our conversations didn’t really align with his assessment. In fact, I felt that our interactions were pretty casual though something about them struck him in a certain way. A way that I didn’t see or necessarily intend.

Such is the way of we humans. Communication is a dynamic and complex activity. What we convey frequently speaks louder than our words. Who we are often overwhelms what we intend. Our impact often goes unnoticed amid the many small interactions through our day. However, intended or not, we are projecting massive volumes of signals…all subject to interpretation.

Was my interaction described above hurried? Was I impatient in some way? Was I direct in questions I might have asked? What would give the impression of intensity? More interestingly, does something inside me come through without me noticing? Intensity can be a good or bad trait depending on how it is used. Was my intensity good or bad through the eyes of the beholder?

Before we get lost in the self-obsessing quest inspired by the questions above, let’s think about what we want to convey in our interactions with other people. The answer to that question depends on the person with whom we are speaking and the context of the conversation. In an introduction, we may want to project goodwill, curiosity, and friendliness. In a business meeting, we may want to convey competence, clarity, and sincerity. In a confrontation, we might seek to project confidence and assertiveness without seeming overly aggressive.

Being the complex animals that we are, we intuitively grasp the nuances above and instinctively adjust tone, posture, word choice, and facial expressions to align with our intentions. Despite our efforts, what we seek to convey is frequently misinterpreted. In the eyes of the beholder, assertiveness might look like aggressiveness. Friendliness might come across as forwardness. Our efforts at sincerity might be interpreted as manipulative. Why? Because the other person views us through their own lens.

You might say, yeah, so what? Consider my example above, what might my employee have said about me in that situation? Did she manage me up or laughingly acknowledge my harder-edged inclinations? What we convey is our signature. How it is interpreted becomes our brand. The impression we leave mingled with the one those around us foster is our representation to the world. A collection of those impressions becomes our reputation. Though what we do is also a huge part of that reputation, impressions drawn from those interactions can quickly neutralize any positives of our behavior or our best intentions.

Emerson’s quotation above speaks to the essence of our conveyance. However, he misses the interpretive side of it. The beholder is also seeing him or herself in the interpretation of what we project. Who you are becomes partly defined by how I see you or how I choose to see you. Few of us can impartially judge such things all of the time. We’re far too busy reading all of the indicators.

For me, the story is a good reminder of the complexities of human interactions. It is possible that “intense” in this situation was simply an effort to turn basic personal dislike into something closer to a compliment without being dishonest. Or, “intense” may have been a high compliment. Regardless, the important thing to remember is that someone is always interpreting those signals you’re sending. And though you can’t control how they see or hear you, you could find yourself accountable for their conclusion.

Without tipping into the realm of self-obsession, take a few moments this week and look objectively at your interactions. What did you intend to convey? Was it interpreted correctly by the receiver? How do you know? Our social effectiveness is contingent upon our ability to navigate these complex interactions. A bit of self-awareness can go a long way in helping us create the best projection of our self.