Actions Really Do Speak Louder

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

Effective communication is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence. But when it’s taught in a corporate setting, emotions usually have very little to do with it. Also regularly missing: cultural competency, empathy and neurodiversity. And while speaking clearly and listening well are wonderful and necessary, the most overlooked aspect when we’re discussing communication is how we behave. As a 20-year communications professional, I’ll be the first to say well-composed words don’t matter if what you’re actually doing is bad (or really good! It works both ways). In my experience, the subtle ways we behave often send the most powerful messages.

  • During my corporate communications days, whenever there was a crisis, I always started with a breakdown of what happened and the steps we’d be taking next. And that would become the message, because in a crisis, it’s what you do next that matters, not how beautifully you express your emotions. That, and telling the truth.
  • As a boss, when a team member was frustrated, my comforting words might make them feel heard, but they’d still be frustrated until I took action to fix whatever was in the way.
  • It’s true in every relationship: as a parent, I learned that when my kids couldn’t find the words to express themselves (melting down or insisting on snuggles or acting wild), it was time for me to shut up and feel with them. Hug them tighter or act a little wild, too. I wasted a lot of time trying to reason with them when they were clearly showing me they did not have the words.

More Words Is Almost Never The Answer

There’s official communication and gossip and innuendo and straight talk. And then there’s what we all actually go ahead and do. I’ve been writing official corporate and political communications for 20 years, including for the kind of worst case scenario crises you plan for in advance. One of the biggest challenges in that role is convincing the folks in charge that they have to actually do something when things are going wrong, not just make a statement. It requires a deep understanding that effective communication involves actions, not just a bunch of carefully selected, well arranged words.

What It Takes To Really Mean It

We don’t just use behavior to communicate hard things, though. Take appreciation, for example. I’ve worked with countless leaders who have been totally baffled by how to show appreciation. It takes up agenda time in executive team meetings, and when it does it’s often awkward and ends up weirdly competitive — less about the person being appreciated and more about the fact that the boss successfully executed the act of appreciation for all to see.

What makes showing appreciation tricky is two-fold. First, we all have our own unique ways of taking it in. For example, while I love high quality swag as much as the next person, it does nothing to make me feel appreciated at work. For that, I require autonomy, money, and direct, enthusiastic praise, thank you very much. Save the glowing emails to the whole organization for someone else, while you’re at it.

Second, we are, as a society, wicked bad at being vulnerable, and sincere appreciation means acknowledging someone else gave us something we couldn’t give ourselves. So, in order to act in a way that communicates appreciation, we have to get past our own stuff, recognize the other person is not us, and focus on matching the impact of what we’re doing with our intent. In other words, we have to really mean it for it to work, then the words we choose won’t even really matter.

The Emotional Intelligence Of Communicating Between The Lines

One aspect of emotional intelligence is being aware of how your words and actions meet, what you communicate without words, and the impact that has on the people around you. And it’s being able to read between the lines when others are communicating with you. The next time you have something serious to convey, whether it’s seriously good or bad, don’t just plan for the words you’ll use, plan for what you’ll do before, during and after your conversation to show you mean it in order to get more lasting results.

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