Storytelling Insights

  • Esther Choy

A Perfect Match: How To Overcome Incongruence and Align Words, Actions, and Emotional Presence



We have all witnessed moments of incongruence: those times when a person’s words and body language don’t match—when we almost suspect they have their fingers crossed behind their backs. Or when the speaker at the front of the room isn’t sending out the emotional signals the situation requires—maybe by appearing too cheery during a somber occasion, or by looking unenthused when an organization has just made great gains.

As leaders striving to live our vision, we want to convey congruity. It’s a crucial part of being authentic. Yet moments of incongruity can easily snag us.


Brooke Vuckovic, an executive coach and adjunct lecturer of leadership coaching atNorthwestern University, has looked at congruence in great detail. In this week’s blog, she shares how leaders can align words, actions, and subtle emotional signals, tailoring all of these to public speaking situations and tricky interpersonal business interactions.

Personal Congruence

Imagine the following scenario. Your colleague Susan has been promoted to a position you spent years working towards, and now your boss is asking you how you feel.

Glossing over your disappointment and saying, “No, that’s great that Susan got promoted when I didn’t,” will come across as incongruent. Your boss knows you are disappointed!

What about saying instead, “Of course I’m disappointed, but you can count on me to do everything in my power to support Susan”? This response acknowledges the emotion the listener knows the speaker must be feeling and sounds more authentic because of it.

Vuckovic uses this scenario to illustrate personal congruence, which is all about the person’s “insides and outsides” matching, she says.

When we talk with someone who is personally incongruent, we feel like “something seems off.” What’s “off” is that we’re reading their “micro-expressions”—those telltale signals that flash across a person’s face regarding their real emotions. Within milliseconds, we read cues that tell us whether or not someone is being authentic, says Vuckovic. That means it’s essential that leaders bring “inside and outside” into complete alignment.

Situational Congruence

Situational dynamics also bring challenges. We’re all familiar with situational incongruence.

Imagine, for instance, that the nightly news shows a journalist reporting on a horrific scene. Then the program cuts back to the novice newscaster, who gives a cheery, “Thanks, Bob!” The novice newscaster hasn’t thought through the emotional affect appropriate to the situation.

That’s situational incongruence.

“Do the work ahead of time to understand your audience,” says Vuckovic. What do they expect from the situation, and how can you work within that framework?

The CEO who presents the company’s mission in a monotone has demonstrated situational incongruence just as the novice newscaster did—because listeners would expect exuberance from the CEO!

But what if you don’t feel exuberant? Being congruent doesn’t mean our feelings rule us. In Vuckovic’s example about Susan’s promotion, the second response does not give in to disappointment. Those feelings don’t get the final word. Instead, the person confidently expresses the values that will allow the team to continue working well together.

Situations will often require emotions we don’t feel at the moment. Elizabeth Gilbert demonstrated this, says Vuckovic, when Oprah asked her to join The Life You Want tour. Gilbert felt nervous and afraid. But then she realized the people who counted on her did not need her fear, but her confidence and her belief in the validity of a creative life. Therefore, she acknowledged the fear to herself and worked to get beyond it. She made the choice not to lead with it.

When it comes to an emotion the people who look up to you might not “need,” Vuckovic advocates “owning it” but then calling yourself to something higher.

Public Speaking: An Opportunity for Congruence

So. You’re getting ready for a presentation. You’ve gauged what your audience expects. You’ve considered the appropriate emotional affect. But you’re a nervous wreck, because… well… it’s public speaking!

Unfortunately, getting “tangled in nerves” makes leaders appear incongruent, says Vuckovic. If we’re experts in our field but don’t come across as comfortable with our material, that’s incongruous. Or if we’re announcing a new direction for our company and sound shaky, our audience won’t trust us to lead them in this new direction.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be fake. When J.K. Rowling gave her 2008 Harvard University Commencement address, she acknowledged how nervous and even nauseous she had been at the thought of giving the speech, says Vuckovic. We can use her professional yet candid example to get us through those nerve-racking first few minutes of a speech.

Other ways to address nerves so you can remain congruent? Vuckovic advises:

  • PRACTICE what you’ll be saying.

  • Walk around the room before you present. “De-escalate the body’s response to unfamiliar territory,” she says. If you can’t view the room in advance, request photographs of the room, the media console, the screen, any of the objects you will have to interact with.

  • Get to the room early so that you are not rushing. You want to “convey credibility and confidence,” and rushing thwarts that.

All of this will help your “insides” match your “outsides”—calming the nerves that are jangling on the inside so that you can show ease and win trust.

Macro Level

The final type of congruence to consider, a macro-level congruence, addresses the question, “Are you living your mission?”

And when it comes to this type of lifestyle congruence, stories help. They help you know what your values are and why they are so crucial to you. They remind you of people in your life who have influenced you toward those values. Stories become your “touchstone,” say Vuckovic. And they let others identify with your values as well.

If you need help telling your story, contact us for a complimentary consultation session! And subscribe to our resource guide Better Every Story. It’s packed with information on free events, tips and coaching sessions.

Photo Credits: News anchor photo by Courtney "Coco" Mault via Flickr. Brooke Vuckovic photo courtesy of Brooke Vuckovic.

#authenticity #publicspeaking #BrookeVuckovic #jkrowling

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