Don’t Just Look at Yourself, Watch Yourself

By Rebecca Altepeter, Head of School


Rebecca AltepeterI have a mad listening face – distinguishable from RBF because I am not resting, I am listening intently. My first clue was when my son would say, “Why are you mad at me?” and I would insist that I wasn’t. I would explain that was just really concentrating on what he was saying. Once he told me I looked mad when I was listening to a story on the radio. I wasn’t.


Then the other night one of my colleagues called me after a long day of Zoom meetings and asked me if I was okay – or if I was mad about something. Surprised, I recalled what I was thinking about and feeling over the course of the day and came up empty when it came to mad.


The next morning I encouraged my leadership team to not just look at them themselves (quarantine-hair unruly, check; pandemic-induced insomnia bags under eyes, check), but to watch themselves (what is my face saying? my posture? body language?) during the upcoming day filled with eight hours of Zoom calls. What an unusual opportunity to see yourself lead all day long. It would be absurd to carry a mirror into a meeting and, yet, our leadership is effectively on display – all day long. 


I decided to take my own medicine, and in the middle of a particularly intense conversation I snuck a glance at myself, and I looked mad. Wow! Did I feel mad? No. But I was really having to concentrate, and I looked mad. I decided to tell my colleagues that I was working hard to keep up and asked one of them to sum up where we were with our decision making to see if we were all on the same page. She did so, and I saw my face relax as she brought clarity to the issue. 


Communicating Verbally and Nonverbally

The next day when I caught myself mad listening, I tried to relax my face. It turns out that I can’t concentrate and look friendly at the same time. I don’t think I can change nearly a lifetime of mad listening face, but I can recognize that I have this face. During and after the Zoom Boom, I can communicate to others what is happening for me when I am really listening. I hope that in doing so I will inspire my team to share more and take more risks. They'll know that when I'm leaning in with a wrinkled brow, I am interested, so keep talking!


Pay attention to what you look like as you lead: Do you inspire? Intimidate? Bore? Engage? Disengage? While the oft-quoted statistic that 93% of communication is nonverbal has been largely discounted, we do know that much of what others hear and experience as they listen to us is in how we say what we are saying. In this time of COVID-19, we are now forced to observe ourselves all day. Rather than bemoaning the fact that you are long overdue for a trim and an eyebrow wax, what can you learn about how effectively you are communicating?