What the World Sees Through Your Lenses

Recently, I purchased new eyeglasses. It had been nearly eight years since my last eye examination, and though my prescription hadn't changed much, my eight-year-old lenses were scratched to the point that looking through them was like looking through a kaleidoscope, especially in the evening, and especially when looking at the headlights of oncoming traffic.

People who know me know that I am a low-maintenance guy with a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. This is especially true of my clothing and style. My wife has been known to retire shirts that she has tired of seeing me wear. Incidentally, these are often my favorite shirts, and she does this when I am away on hunting trips, because I typically return from these trips full of optimism and full of appreciation that she has enabled the trip by handling home duties. If not for my wife and hunting, I would likely continue to dress like a 1988 high school senior.

That made it difficult for me to accept a new style of eyeglasses. I asked, and Tim the optometrist told me that I could keep my old glasses and simply replace the frames. He was, however, in agreement with my wife that I should modernize my style. Incidentally, Tim the optometrist is a neighbor, and I suspect that my wife conspired with him to dismiss my reluctance to change. Nearly eighteen years of marriage have taught her how to ride this old bull.

"What do you do for a living?" Tim asked. It wasn't a question I expected from an optometrist. After a brief discussion, it was settled that I was some kind of consultant. "Well, let's look for frames that would fit the part," he said and left me wondering what I had looked like for the past eight years - maybe some sort of ax murderer?

This eyeglass examination has me reflecting on how I appear to those I encounter every day. If I didn't look like "some kind of consultant," what did I look like? And, how did that affect my everyday interactions?

A few months back, I wrote about body language and what I learned about it from ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro. Body language experts like Navarro focus on small details that the average person doesn't consciously recognize, like movement of a person's lips, position of his shoulders and his choice of attire. All of these non-verbal elements communicate to those we encounter - even to those with whom we don't speak - what kind of person we are and what's on our minds.

Because the eyes are naturally one of the first places people look for non-verbal communication, the choice of eyewear is among the most important style decisions a person makes. Some-kind-of-consultant needs to establish trustworthiness, credibility and strength. When a client or potential client meets with me, he needs to feel assured that he can trust me to add value to business decisions that can dramatically affect his business's bottom line. Obviously, what I say and what I've done play key roles in establishing that credibility. If I were an incompetent verbal communicator and unproven professional, I wouldn't have the opportunity. My non-verbal communication can reinforce those qualifications or detract from them.

Non-verbal communication registers in the limbic system of the observer's brain. This part of the brain also controls essential reactions like self-preservation. Stimuli received through the limbic system trigger neural and endocrinal physical reactions, like increased heart rate, in the body. Navarro teaches that the limbic system deals with threats, as well as comfort and discomfort. It's why a smiling grandmother warms us and puts us at ease, and a stern, square-shouldered highway patrolman sends shivers up our backs. The same process is in play in less dramatic everyday interactions, like those between business professionals.

It's why we should frequently examine ourselves from the outside, looking for little changes that can yield big results. In my case and in the case of most people, it's very helpful to engage trusted advisors in this process. Spouses, close friends and professional peers - those who feel comfortable sharing uncomfortable observations - are a great place to look for this sort of support.

Thanks to my style consultants, I now look through much larger, rectangular lenses set in a darker, thicker frame than what I had worn for the past eight years. At first, it was difficult to adjust to seeing my new look in the mirror. I felt like the legendary baseball broadcaster Harry Caray. However, I've since noticed the eyewear of other business leaders, and my style is similar. Whether this translates into more business credibility is yet to be seen, but I feel that my newfound awareness of small details like eyewear style makes me a more strategic communicator. Is it time that you considered doing the same?

-- Mitch Arnold