Never miss important social cues again

Why “Never miss important social cues again”?

Are you missing social cues?
Missing social cues? — Image by

Following my previous post on How and when to say sorry (here), a fellow-blogger friend commented “I’m not guilt free and I try to apologize when I realize I’ve misstepped. Problematic for me with my lacking social skills is I am not always quick on the uptake to recognize a social faux paux.” Great timing Nikki — now I get to expand on the title of another post “Never miss important social cues again” stored like, forever, in my bulging draft folder.

What are social cues?

Social cues can be either verbal or nonverbal hints which can be positive or negative, (Wikipedia). These cues guide social and other interactions and let us know that the other person or a group is not interested in our conversation. These cues can tell us that someone feels offended by what we’ve said or perhaps they’re really excited by our explanation. Social cues can include:

Eye rolling — image by
  • facial expression — without a doubt, the most telling—and common—nonverbal means of communication is through facial expressions like eye rolling, downturned lips, flared nostrils, looking bored, showing disgust, fear, animosity or we might be smiling and showing approval. However, we’ve all seen a fake smile — that one that doesn’t reach the eyes 😉
  • body posture — is critical in making a strong impression. How we sit or stand is important in how we’re seen by others. Slouched or facing the floor might display indifference, uncertainty, or even weakness while, conversely back straight and head held high exudes confidence, assurance, and strength. However, we’ve all seen soldiers on parade – exuding confidence and assurance? when they’re actually terrified of their Sergeant screaming in their face.
  • speech isn’t just what we say, but also how we say it, using inflection, pitch, tempo (controlling speed of speech) and tone of voice to convey anger like shouting. Also included here might be huffs, puffs, tutting and heavy sighs. There isn’t a teenager, uh — anywhere who hasn’t done this.
  • proximity — how close or far away we are from a person. Someone might step back from us if they’re afraid or if they’re standing close or leaning in, it might be because they’re interested in what we’re saying. We all have our own ‘intimate space’ and we’re choosy who we let in there. Have you ever thought — “get out of my personal space!”
  • gestures — are used to communicate important messages, either in place of speech or together, in parallel with spoken words. Remember though, that gestures are culturally specific and can have very different meanings in different cultural or social settings. For instance, in Brazil, Germany, Russia, and many other countries around the world, the OK sign is a very offensive gesture because it is used to depict a private bodily orifice. So when it comes to gestures, the wisest advice might be to keep your fingers to yourself! (, 2013). In the UK, we all know someone who talks with their hands. Then there’s pointing or arms crossed looking impatient or hostile. There’s also the kids foot-stomping, which most of us have seen at some point.
  • body language – we shake our head, clench our fists, stare out the window, turn away from our speaker perhaps showing disinterest — say in school, university or meetings, and even with stroppy teenagers.
  • physiological changes are often the most associated with discomfort, shyness and anxiety, for example blushing, flushing, shaky hands or sweating are a giveaway that someone’s ill-at-ease. If you’ve ever had to give a presentation at work, you’re probably familiar with some of these social cues.

Nonverbal cues speak the loudest

In a previous post ‘How to improve your verbal communication skills’ (here), you may remember that a huge 65% of our communication skills are nonverbal.

Therefore, it’s not only important to be aware of what someone says, but we desperately need to be aware of how they say it too. The trick here is to remember — nonverbal (body language) cues actually speak the loudest.

This might appear odd because it seems glaringly obvious, but it isn’t, not to some. In fact, we’ve all missed cues at some point. For example, in the midst of an argument we probably missed the process of what’s going on around us and stormed ahead no matter the other person’s response. We’ve not registered their shock, surprise, horror or utter silence. We’ve missed their cues to either pull back or stop.

Nonverbal cues occur instinctively

Now we understand that body language is the use of expressions, proximity, mannerisms, physical behaviour to communicate nonverbally, did you know:

The faces of Trump — Image by
  • nonverbal communication occurs instinctively rather than consciously (but it can be learnt)
  • that whether you’re aware of it or not, when we interact with others, we continuously give and receive wordless cues
  • these messages don’t stop when we stop talking either
  • even if we’re silent, we’re still communicating nonverbally

All of our subconscious nonverbal actions send powerful messages to others, which can build trust, put people at ease and draw them to us, or we might confuse, offend and undermine what it is we want to convey.

In the absence of reliable information about a person, all we really have is the nonverbal cues which offer a look into their likely behaviours or actions.

Social and nonverbal cues in action

For example, at work in my role as a mental health nurse, our Rapid Response Team (RRT – a team of around 6-8 mainly large male nurses who would attend to a ward when they had an aggressive or violent patient) instinctively all stood tall, heads back and arms crossed, staring at the said patient.

Unfortunately, our RRT’s nonverbal communication was intimidating to the patients at best and threatening or provoking at worst. The patient didn’t know these men — with their threatening body language — or that they were there to help — so it didn’t inspire trust in the patient. In fact it often made the patient want to lash out, either in fear or sometimes in defiance. Staff were missing social cues these presented by the patient.

Control & Restraint relaxed posture

Therefore the RRT first had to be made aware of their how their nonverbal communication appeared. This was done during the debriefing meetings following an incident where it was fed back that their posture was inappropriate and unacceptable.

Secondly, the Control & Restraint Department (responsible for the RRT’s training) was informed of how this practice was coming across on the wards. Staff went on refresher courses where they carried out mock incidents, using a more relaxed posture when approaching patients.

Effective nonverbal communication can be learnt

Okay, so while it’s said that nonverbal communication is spontaneous and generally can’t be faked — it can be taught and learnt, as above.

To enable us to develop and maintain successful/good relationships, it’s not only crucial that we have good speaking skills, but also a clear understanding of the nonverbal cues that accompany conversation. It goes without saying that we need to be aware of how we ourselves come across to others.

Having an awareness or even a control of your own nonverbal communication could prove advantageous in a business or work environment and certainly if you’re working with the public. This awareness is definitely beneficial if you have difficulties within your personal and family relationships.

If you’re worried you’re missing social cues, ask someone you trust and respect to give you honest constructive feedback on whether you’ve been able to read their nonverbal hints appropriately.

Non-verbal communication in film

Watch films or tv programmes, paying particular interest in the nonverbal communication that occurs between two people or groups of people. See which of the above and how many cues you can identify.

Notice how they express friendliness and positivity by maintaining an open posture. See how they stand with their legs hip-distance apart and keep their torso exposed as opposed to covered with crossed arms, keeping their head raised and relaxing their facial expression.

Being aware of nonverbal communication

If you recognize that a colleague, friend or family member you’re speaking to has a case of the jitters and they’re struggling to make themselves clear, try to make them feel at ease. Let them have some time and don’t interrupt until after they’ve finished speaking.

If someone’s raising their voice at you, take a step back and with your arms out, palms down and say calmly, quietly and firmly, “Please, don’t raise your voice to me.”

You could go on further “I can’t hear” or “I can’t understand what you’re saying when you’re shouting at me.” When they do stop shouting, and they will — they’ll be shocked by your actions — you can ask them to repeat what they were saying.

If someone does continue to shout or rant, repeat the nonverbal cues and tell them – you are going to walk away (and do it, whether it’s to another room, the bathroom).

Don’t be afraid of asserting yourself, calmy, quietly and firmly to say “You’re scaring me.”, “It makes me feel ………… when you shout at me.” No one can argue with your feelings; their yours and you own them.

Watch out for the other person’s nonverbal cues to gauge the situation. This will give you clues as to whether they want to continue in this vein or whether they’re calming down, willing to listen to you.

If you’re still struggling with communications skills, these posts might help:

In the meantime, I’m happy to answer any questions and I’m interested in your thoughts on nonverbal communication skills. Is there anything I’ve missed?

When and how do I say sorry?

You ever had that “Ah! When and how do I say sorry” moment?

Bad day at the office — image by

We’ve all had a bad day at the office, on the shop floor or the ward, sometimes with the kids or the family, or that insensitive friend, when we just want to take someone’s head off their shoulders. Yes?

I’m guessing you didn’t literally take anyone’s head off, but maybe you raised your voice, hurled some insults, gave some dirty looks, tuts and sighs? Perhaps you stomped around, bashed your laptop shut, slammed a few drawers or doors for effect? Once you’d taken a few deep breaths, had a cup of tea or a glass of wine, slumped into your car seat or relaxed in a warm bath, you calmed down.

Then it’s Ah! When and how do I say sorry? Let’s find out more:

Insincere or unnecessary apologising

The Guardian (2019) said “In Britain, we over-apologise out of politeness.” and we do. It comes easily. But some apologies are totally unnecessary and often insincere i.e. we say sorry when someone bumps into us or we say to our waiter “I’m sorry, but my food is cold.” We call work and say “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel well.”

Constant apologies, particularly at work might undermine someone’s confidence in you; in a meeting you say “Sorry, I’d like to interrupt you.” Why apologise? Or when you have to deliver an important but boring directive to your team i.e. “Sorry, but we have to complete audits by……….” Just tell them the message “We have the annual audits to be completed by…….”, which sounds way more confident and you needn’t be sorry about directives from someone or somewhere else.

“I’m sorry” are only just words —

Some people just apologise to relieve their own guilt or shame at the way they behaved and are not necessarily genuinely upset by the hurt they caused the other party. Others might apologise to escape punishment like someone in court hoping to get a lesser penalty.

Even our politicians and world leaders apologies are carefully worded and often insincere. They’re seen only to be protecting their image rather than concern about their message.

A genuine apology

It’s generally more difficult to say sorry when you actually have something to apologise for. Psychology Today (2016) said “A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilized people. It has the power to restore damaged relationships, be they on a small scale, between two people, such as intimates, or on a grand scale, between groups of people, even nations. If done correctly, an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.”

When to say sorry

  • Immediately, if possible but at least at the earliest opportunity. It’s unfair on the other person or group of people and it only drags out your ensuing feelings of possibly anxiety or upset at causing hurt in someone you care about or respect.
  • When it’s your fault. Sometimes if you really have done something wrong, it truly needs an apology. And in those situations, by all means, take responsibility! Own it!
  • Evoking tears or other distress in others tells us that we’ve overstepped the boundaries of what’s acceptable to the injured party. If it’s a friend, someone else we care about or respect, we don’t want to alienate them, lose their friendship, end the relationship or lose respect at work. We know we have to come up with some kind of apology to repair the damage and get the unpleasant matter behind us all.

I think we’re all aware how maddening it is, not to get an apology from someone who’s hurt us.

How to say sorry

How to improve your communication
— image by new-edu resources
  • Show genuine remorse over your actions by, and this is important, telling them first “I apologise” or I’m sorry”.
  • Genuinely and freely, not waiting to be asked; recognising the damage/hurt you’ve caused. You might say something like “I’m really sorry I said/did that. I can see how hurt/upset you are.” or “I apologise for hurting your feelings and I want to fix this.”
  • Show and sound like you mean it – your body movement, your eyes, your hands, your tone of voice. You need to show the other person that you really do understand and care about their feelings and their experience of what happened. Ask them their take on the situation and how it made them feel.
  • Take responsibility for your words, actions or behaviour – admit that you were rude, wrong, ignorant or downright spiteful
  • Repair the damage – make amends. Tell them how you’re going to fix things “I’ve heard and understand what you’ve said and I’ll make changes for the future.” Ask how them how to, if necessary “What can I do to make it right/better/change things?”
  • Promise that it won’t happen again and you need to keep this promise. The definition of a promise “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified.” Make the promise concrete and you’re sure you can commit to the action or expectation.

How not to say sorry

Meredith Walters
  • “I’ve already said sorry.” or “You know I’m sorry.” or “My dad said I had to say sorry, so……….” These kinds of apologies just cheapen whatever follows and if someone tells you to apologise, you’re giving their apology, not yours.
  • Don’t make excuses for your behaviour/words – “I was only trying to tell you…….”
  • Don’t try to justify your words/behaviours – “I was just trying to help you.” and “I was just playing devil’s advocate.” “I was just joking.” You’re trying to tell them that how they felt wasn’t important cos ‘it was just for fun.’ Really? Because, it obviously wasn’t fun for the hurt person.
  • Don’t use the “you know” kind of apologies like “Oh you know I’m like a bull in a china shop.” or “you know I forget sometimes.” You’re trying to belittle their hurt or their experience as though they shouldn’t be upset.
  • The same goes for “I Know” apologies like “Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have……” It’s like “Well, why did you then?” and you’re not really owning up to the damage you’ve caused to the other person.
  • Bullying apologies are dreadful too, like “Okay, I get it – sorry!” and “Drop it now, it’s done – sorry!” or “Sorrrry – duh!” with the eyeroll.
Any questions?image by

I’m sure there are many more ways to apologise or ways of how not to apologise. I hope some of these points help and I’m open to more suggestions or your comments. What was the last insincere apology you gave or received?

You might find the following posts useful too:

How to improve your verbal communication skills?

Do you struggle with verbal communication skills?

My previous lack of verbal communication skills

How to talk to someone

I was terribly shy in my teens and if I met someone new I’d blush bright red. I’d become anxious, start to panic and feel faint. That made me feel even less confident in making conversation. I never knew what to say as an introduction or how to end a conversation effectively. If I was asked a question I couldn’t think of an appropriate response and my silences might have appeared rude. Job interviews were a nightmare as I giggled nervously (hysterically) throughout.

However, fifteen years in Human Resource Management and fifteen more in mental health management hugely improved my verbal communication.

In a recent post we looked at good Listening Skills and today, we’ll address verbal communication skills.

What is verbal communication skills?

The ability to convey or share ideas and feelings effectively during conversation; to be able to talk and be understood. Therefore developing good verbal communication is necessary for both our personal and work life. Learning this skill will enable you to cultivate healthy relationships with loved one, friends, families, colleagues and even our boss.

Effective verbal communication skills include more than just talking. Verbal communication encompasses both how you deliver messages and how you receive them.

4 main types of verbal communication skills

NHS Leadership Academy’s 1st annual
conference — image by
  1. Public Communication is normally where one person holds the stage, addressing larger groups of people i.e. Annual conferences or election campaigns.
  2. Small-Group Communication takes place when there are more than two people. This is where everyone participates and interacts with the others in the group i.e. team meeting or group therapy.
  3. Intrapersonal Communication is private and restricted to yourself. It’s like your self-talk, using your imagination or visualisation. Imagine talking to mum on the phone and she tells you she’s cooking your favourite meal, the aroma might come to mind.
  4. Interpersonal Communication takes place between two people like a one-to-one chat between nurse and patient or you and your boss, in order to communicate your needs or any actions required.

For now we’re going to address Interpersonal Communication; a one-to-one chat or simply a conversation between two people, as that’s what occurs most often for us, like talking to the cashier in your local shop or a neighbour.

The importance of verbal communication skills

Would you believe that approximately 65% of our communication is nonverbal?

However, while only 35% of our communication is verbal (conversation), it is still the basis of all communication so we mustn’t neglect its importance.

The classic words of John Donne in 1624 ‘No man is an island’; roughly translated means no one is truly self-sufficient and we need the company and closeness of others in order to grow. While you may know of a recluse who functions solely alone, the rest of us generally have to be around people. Working and living in harmony, ‘fitting in’ and engaging with others is basic human need.

One of the best ways to fit in, engage with new people and build good relationships is via a two-way conversation. Developing rapport, which sometimes happens naturally, is essential and one of the first steps to relationship building. You can start building rapport by finding common ground or creating shared experiences with the other person.

From my professional experience, I know that nurses are expected to display empathy, compassion, kindness, genuineness (being authentic), self-awareness and a non-judgemental attitude when building relationships with patients.

However, these skills are easily transferable to all areas of work and personal life and can quickly be achieved by non-professionals. If you can be authentic, warm, open and friendly you’ll be able to verbally communicate with just about anyone.

Socratic Questioning skills you might find useful

Another achievable verbal communication skill (which might be used by nurses) is displaying a quiet curiosity and asking gentle probing questions. This technique is called Socratic Questioning (469 BC–399 BC). It’s a form of cooperative, argumentative dialogue between individuals and is based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking (Wikipedia). Being curious, acting a little bit dumb and getting people to think of the answers to their questions or problems for themselves.

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  1. Questions for clarification — Perhaps in response to someone crying, “I know he’s cheating on me.” You’d question “Why do you say that?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions — In response to a friend saying “He’s out late, he must be cheating.” You might ask “What could we assume instead?” or “You seem to be assuming.”
  3. Socratic questions that probe reasons and evidence — In response to a person saying “You’re always letting me down.” You could ask “What would be an example?” or “Tell me on how many occasions I’ve done that.” or “When did I last do that?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives — Replying to someone saying “I’m not going back into hospital, I hate it” You could ask “What would be an alternative?” or “What would your Care Team think about that?”
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences — In response to a friend explaining “The staff are a bit………, you know…. so I can’t go back into hospital.” You could gently probe, “What are you implying? What will happen if you don’t go back?
  6. Questions about the question — Perhaps in response to a patient/friend saying “I’m so miserable all the time, do you think they’re all fed up with me.” You might respond “How would somebody else/ you mum/ your answer this question? And “Why?” or “Why is this issue important?

Potential pitfalls during conversation we need to be aware of:

Unfortunately, in our busy worlds, at work or at home, with technology all around us, we’re easily distracted by noises or visual diversions. Is no wonder we make the following errors:

Excellent communication skills —
image by
  1. Sometimes we talk too much, often waffling or filling space. We feel we need to fill the silence with chatter — we don’t! It’s okay to have 10-15 seconds of silence, just relax and sit with it. This will give you the time to think about what you’re going to say next.
  2. We’re often unable to put our ideas across so that the other person understands – take a breath, exhale slowly then inhale just as slowly and start again. Don’t be afraid to say something like “I’m not sure how to explain this so it makes sense, but I’ll give it a go.” One instance maybe if the other person does not speak the same language and we can’t get our point across. However, we may be able to resort to some sort of non-verbal communication.
  3. We resort to jargon/colloquialism/slang – jargon occurs a lot with doctors, nurses and scientists. The medical/nursing field also use acronyms like ECG, ECT and CBT which can confuse, embarrass and alienate people who are unfamiliar with our medical/scientific/nursing terms. Colloquialisms come in where people speak with local words and phrases which can leave other people out of conversations. Computer language and the technical side of WordPress are completely lost on me – I need plain and simple messages here.
  4. We don’t think before we speak, we just dive straight in. When your words are negative, demeaning, harsh or inconsiderate you may be seen as a miserable, angry and mean spirited person who sees only the bad and not the good in life or people. Take a breath and a couple of seconds to think about what you’re going to say. You are what you say — your words hint at your thoughts, values and beliefs and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time might hurt or anger others.
  5. We don’t talk enough; If you’re unsure what the other person is talking about, ask them to repeat or rephrase it or tell them you don’t understand what they’ve just said. Most people don’t actually mind – they get the opportunity to hear themselves speak again….. If you’re short on things to say, try bringing up topics that you enjoy and are somewhat knowledgeable about. Open up and say what you think, share how you feel or share one of your own experiences i.e. if the other person tells you about their golf trip that weekend and you know nothing about golf, you could say “Ah, yes, the weather was good wasn’t it. We took advantage of it and went fishing/paddling in rock pools,” — don’t just stand there nodding and smiling.
  6. Going off on a tangent (and not being able to get back on track). Apologise and stop for a second. Tell them “Ooops, I’ve gone off track, what was I/you saying?”
  7. Being unable to give the other person the information they need to join in the conversation or to respond i.e. by giving yes or no or even one-word answers, you’re not inviting the other person to respond. Try to expand on a ‘yes‘ when asked something like “Do you work for Smith & Smyths?” You could say “Yes, I work in the post room and I’ve been there for almost a year now. What about you?”
  8. Not listening enough. Ernest Hemingway once said: “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Don’t be like most people. Actively listen and don’t just wait impatiently for your turn to speak. When you listen, you might find something of interest that you can discuss further — when it’s your turn to speak.
How to improve your communication
skills — image by

Whatever you are doing, the way you use your verbal communication skills, sets the emotional tone for any future relationships. Just think; chatting with a new person might lead to a great friendship, a brilliant new partner, a friendly colleague or an amazing business lead.

Do you recognise any of the pitfalls in verbal communication? Anyone got any hints or tips for effective verbal communication with new people? I really enjoy reading about your experiences.