Power Communications: Mastering the Unconscious

Most communication is unconscious. You may think you’re delivering clear and consistent messages based on your words, but unconscious nonverbal behaviors are key to communicating with power.

Startling advances in brain science have made it possible for us to gather and test evidence as we uncover the unconscious mind’s amazing strengths. While our conscious brains can handle some 40 bits of information per second, the unconscious mind processes an astounding 11 million bits per second. Much of this activity occurs instantaneously, nonverbally and unconsciously.

Your unconscious mind is at work when:

  • You quickly brake or swerve to avoid an object in the road.
  • You physically shift position to mirror a colleague’s posture.
  • You and a friend simultaneously blurt out the same phrase or idea.
  • You have a gut feeling that the person speaking to you is concealing information.

Without the participation of your unconscious mind, you’d react too slowly to avoid danger, would have a hard time relating to others and would be unable to read emotional cues that detect lies or authenticity.

The same holds true for leadership communication. If you rely solely on your words, you’re missing opportunities to inspire others. Studies continue to confirm that listeners perceive a message’s meaning largely through nonverbal, subconscious processing.

Despite all of this research, some of us cling to the notion that we rule our unconscious minds, and not vice versa. In truth, we make most decisions unconsciously, only becoming aware of them when we start to act upon them.

What Science Reveals

“We create a leader to make us feel safe and to give us a group purpose or direction. Because, like a group of fish or birds or zebra, we need and want guidance.” ~ Nick Morgan, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014)

Recent scientific breakthroughs have changed conventional wisdom about how we communicate with others, how we interpret what they say and how we discern leadership potential. Some of the more interesting findings include:

  • We gesture before we consciously think about doing so.
  • Our brain’s mirror neurons fire when we observe others experiencing emotions, and we wind up experiencing similar feelings. These “contagious emotions” allow us to connect with one another, experience empathy and anticipate thoughts.
  • If you lose your ability to process emotions, you’ll also lose your capacity to remember or decide anything.
  • You emit low-frequency sounds that align with the most powerful person near you through matching vocal tones.
  • When you’re involved in a negotiation, the measurable nonverbal signals associated with your confidence level more accurately predict success or failure than the relative merits of your position or words.
  • Neurons are distributed throughout your body, not just in your brain. Sensitive neurons live in the heart and gut.
  • When you communicate with someone else, your brain patterns align—even if you happen to disagree.


Morgan encourages leaders to master seven essential power cues for better communication:

  1. Self-Awareness. How do you show up when you walk into a room? Take control of your presence, and change both your thinking and the messages you send to those around you.Assess your posture, physical presence and gestures. Keep a diary or take video of yourself to evaluate (as objectively as possible) how you appear to others.
  2. Nonverbal Communications. Take charge of your nonverbal communications to project the persona you desire. Nonverbal behaviors are a natural expression of our feelings. Which emotions do you convey through body language during important moments, conversations, meetings and presentations? When you share your emotions, you can actually control a group’s mood. Others pick up on your emotional cues through their mirror neurons. You essentially “leak” your emotions to them.
  3. Unconscious Messages. Read others’ unconscious messages. Become attuned to the hidden messages sent out by everyone around you.
  4. Leadership Voice. You can turn your voice into a commanding instrument that helps you take charge of a room. Increase your voice’s leadership potential through breathing dynamics, vocal exercises and practicing vocal tonality. Some leaders choose to work with a voice coach.
  5. Social Signal. Establish the right levels of energy and passion to win the contract, negotiation or raise. MIT researchers have pinpointed four patterns of behavior that predict success or failure in key human interactions:
    1. Influence. Boost your positional power, emotion or expertise. Control the give-and-take tempo of a conversation.
    2. Mimicry. Consciously copy others and then lead them.
    3. Activity. Focus more intently on the conversation, meeting or presentation.
    4. Consistency. Increase your consistency to gain support; decrease it to show openness.
  6.  Unconscious Reprogramming. Use the power of your unconscious mind to make decisions, rid yourself of phobias and fears, and create a more successful persona. You may need to craft and repeat a positive mantra to program your thinking. Is your unconscious mind holding you back or propelling you forward? Shed your unconscious mind of the blocks and impediments to success. Take charge of your inner dialogues by replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk.
  7. Synchronize with Stories. Put all of the steps together by mastering the art of storytelling. When we tell each other stories, our brain patterns synchronize and people are more likely to listen to you. Stories enhance your natural leadership capacity, increase your charisma and move others to action. Convey your message in ways that align people with you, down to their very brain waves.