The secret to understanding people!

Business Coaching, Education, leadership, motivation, staff wellbeing, teaching, team building

All behaviour is communication. I came across this statement whilst assessing a special school for Unicef’s Rights Respecting School Award. Mountjoy School in Dorset caters for children aged 4-18 with severe learning difficulties. Many children there are unable to communicate verbally, however at Mountjoy this does not impede their right to ‘have a say when adults are making decisions that affect them’ – Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Instead the school proactively ‘listens’ to the non-verbal communication of all its students, recognising that all behaviour is communication.

So, when a child behaves in a way that is unacceptable, instead of addressing simply the external behaviour and imposing an external disciplinary measure, staff are trained to seek to identify the internal message the child is trying to communicate, however inappropriately, and address this by internal discipline. 

For example, when a child was in distress and exhibiting violent behaviour he was asked where he would like to go to calm down and which toy he would like to take with him to do so. His voice was not denied but rather by giving him some control and respecting his rights he was able to regain his composure and staff were able to identify that his agitation was prompted whenever he felt unsafe. His behaviour was his unconscious attempt to control his environment. All behaviour is communication. 

What a shame that we don’t readily take the same approach in all our dealings with people! It is well documented that only 7% of communication is verbal; and of the 93% that is non-verbal, 38% is tone of voice and 55% is body language: our behaviour. Just as the folding of the arms or legs during conversation can communicate defensiveness or discomfort, so when employees or students are regularly late, for example, they are communicating something. It may be that they are communicating disengagement, it may be that they are communicating disorganisation or it may be something more serious, such as that they are not coping with a dysfunctional home life. The knack of a great leader or teacher is to read between the lines of behaviour so as to address the causal factors rather than merely sanctioning the symptom. 

Mountjoy School has amazing student attendance figures… because, as staff and parents testify: “the children love coming to school” and not because they have a draconian sanctioning policy. Sanctions will motivate some to a point, for fear of punishment or promise of reward, however sanctions seldom change attitudes at the core level. They may achieve compliance but never engagement. 

And that is what you really want, whether as a teacher or a manager or even as a parent: for your people to be engaged, to be with you, to be fully on board with your mission, whatever that may be. 

As a parent this has made me rethink my approach to managing the ‘teenage years’. When my kids are willful or rude or ignore my wishes… They are not simply trying to be obnoxious. They are not simply getting kicks out of irritating me. Their behaviour is communication. The fact is my daughter’s rudeness at times and seeming inability to see my point of view is not maliciously motivated, but is an expression of the fact that she feels constrained, is desperate for some freedom and doesn’t feel like I see her point of view. 

My son is often loud and annoying to his brother and sister… not because this is his aim in life but because he is seeking to assert himself and find affirmation as the youngest in the family. In both cases the ‘cure’ is unlikely to be sanctioning… rather to help them find what they are looking for in a positive way. 

What are your staff or your team or your students ‘saying’ to you through their behaviour at the moment? What are your kids saying? What is your boss saying? What is your partner/ spouse saying? Seriously consider that question on a daily basis and you are in a much better place to be able to work towards a far better outcome. Remember, all behaviour is communication. 

<a href=””>Business photo created by katemangostar –</a>


  1. REPLY
    comment Louise Monblat says

    Superb blog Peter! Wise words to help us all interpret what we don’t say to each other

  2. REPLY
    comment Greggnaize says


Post a comment