Nonverbal Communication Skills
The Power of Nonverbal communication and Body Language
Nonverbal communication, or body language, is a vital form of communication. When we interact with others, we continuously give and receive countless wordless signals. All of our nonverbal behaviors—the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages.
The way you listen, look, move, and react tell the other person whether or not you care and how well you’re listening. The nonverbal signals you send either produce a sense of interest, trust, and desire for connection—or they generate disinterest, distrust, and confusion.
Nonverbal communication cues can play five roles:
- Repetition: they can repeat the message the person is making verbally
- Contradiction: they can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey
- Substitution: they can substitute for a verbal message. For example, a person's eyes can often convey a far more vivid message than words and often do
- Complementing: they may add to or complement a verbal message. A boss who pats a person on the back in addition to giving praise can increase the impact of the message
- Accenting: they may accent or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can underline a message.
It takes more than words to create fulfilling, strong relationships. Nonverbal communication has a huge impact on the quality of our relationships. Nonverbal communication skills improve relationships by helping you:
- Accurately read other people, including the emotions they’re feeling and the unspoken messages they’re sending.
- Create trust and transparency in relationships by sending nonverbal signals that match up with your words.
- Respond with nonverbal cues that show others that you understand, notice, and care.
Unfortunately, many people send confusing or negative nonverbal signals without even knowing it. When this happens, both connection and trust are lost in our relationships.
Consider the case of Arlene:Arlene is attractive and has no problem meeting eligible men — it’s keeping them that is the problem! Arlene is funny and a good conversationalist, but even though she laughs and smiles constantly, she radiates tension. Arlene’s shoulders and eyebrows are noticeably raised, her voice is shrill and her body stiff to touch. Being around Arlene makes many people feel uncomfortable. Arlene has a lot going for her that is undercut by the discomfort she evokes in others.
Arlene is articulate, attractive, and well-intentioned, but she struggles to connect with others because she isn’t aware of the nonverbal messages she’s communicating. But she can break this pattern if she learns to pay attention to the wordless signals she sends and receives:
Arlene notices that her date is tapping his fingers and that she has been swinging her leg and foot. He looks bored, and she feels tense all over. Taking a long, deep breath and a swallow of wine, she feels her shoulders drop and her jaw relax. Arlene leans across the table and breaks into a warm smile. Her date smiles back, and their eyes meet and hold. She has also used her new observational skills at work and is now much more comfortable interacting with others in that setting.
There are many different types of nonverbal communication. Together, the following nonverbal signals and cues communicate your interest and investment in others.
The human face is extremely expressive, able to express countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across cultures.
Body movements and posture
Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up, or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world. This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance, and subtle movements.
Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. However, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation.
Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response.
We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a firm handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring pat on the back, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on your arm.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was standing too close and invading your space? We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the culture, the situation, and the closeness of the relationship. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy, aggression, dominance, or affection.
We communicate with our voices, even when we are not using words. Nonverbal speech sounds such as tone, pitch, volume, inflection, rhythm, and rate are important communication elements. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. These nonverbal speech sounds provide subtle but powerful clues into our true feelings and what we really mean. Think about how tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
- Intensity. A reflection of the amount of energy you project is considered your intensity. Again, this has as much to do with what feels good to the other person as what you personally prefer.
- Timing and pace. Your ability to be a good listener and communicate interest and involvement is impacted by timing and pace.
- Sounds that convey understanding. Sounds such as “ahhh, ummm, ohhh,” uttered with congruent eye and facial gestures, communicate understanding and emotional connection. More than words, these sounds are the language of interest, understanding and compassion.
Tips for successful nonverbal communication:
- Take a time out if you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress. Stress compromises your ability to communicate. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other people, send off confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior. Take a moment to calm down before you jump back into the conversation. Once you’ve regained your emotional equilibrium, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way.
- Pay attention to inconsistencies. Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said. If you get the feeling that someone isn’t being honest or that something is “off,” you may be picking up on a mismatch between verbal and nonverbal cues. Is the person is saying one thing, and their body language something else? For example, are they telling you “yes” while shaking their head no?
- Look at nonverbal communication signals as a group. Don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you are sending and receiving, from eye contact to tone of voice and body language. Are your nonverbal cues consistent—or inconsistent—with what you are trying to communicate?
Nonverbal communication and body language: Common mistakes
- You’re not subtle. Be objective about your own observations to make sure you aren’t offending others by broadly mimicking their speech or behavior. Remember, most people instinctively send and interpret nonverbal signals all the time, so don’t assume you’re the only one who’s aware of nonverbal undercurrents. Finally, stay true to yourself. Be aware of your own natural style, and don’t adopt behavior that is incompatible with it.
- You bluff. Thinking you can bluff by deliberately altering your body language can do more harm than good. Unless you’re a proficient actor, it will be hard to overcome your body’s inability to lie. There will always be mixed messages, signs that your channels of communication are not congruent. It’s a prime example of leakage, and something others will detect, one way or another.
- You rush to accuse based on body language alone. Incorrect accusations based on erroneous observations can be embarrassing and damaging and take a long time to overcome. Always verify your interpretation with another communications channel before rushing in. You could say something like, “I get the feeling you’re uncomfortable with this course of action. Would you like to add something to the discussion?” This should draw out the real message and force the individual to come clean or to adjust his or her body language.
Before you can improve your nonverbal communication skills, you need to figure out what you’re doing right and where there is room for improvement. The most effective method is to observe yourself in action:
- Video camera – Videotape a conversation between you and a partner. Set the camera to record both of you at the same time, so you can observe the nonverbal back-and-forth. When you watch the recording, focus on any discrepancies between your verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Digital camera – Ask someone to take a series of photos of you while you’re talking to someone else. As you look through the photos, focus on you and the other person’s body language, facial expressions, and gestures.
- Audio recorder – Record a conversation between you and a friend or family member. As you listen to the recording afterwards, concentrate on the way things are said, rather than the words. Pay attention to tone, timing, pace, and other sounds.
As you watch or listen to the recordings, ask yourself the following questions:
|Evaluating your nonverbal communication skills|
|Eye contact||Is this source of connection missing, too intense, or just right in yourself or in the person you are looking at?|
|Facial expression||What is your face showing? Is it masklike and unexpressive, or emotionally present and filled with interest? What do you see as you look into the faces of others?|
|Tone of voice||Does your voice project warmth, confidence, and delight, or is it strained and blocked? What do you hear as you listen to other people?|
|Posture and gesture||Does your body look still and immobile, or relaxed? Sensing the degree of tension in your shoulders and jaw answers this question. What do you observe about the degree of tension or relaxation in the body of the person you are speaking to?|
|Touch||Remember, what feels good is relative. How do you like to be touched? Who do you like to have touching you? Is the difference between what you like and what the other person likes obvious to you?|
|Intensity||Do you or the person you are communicating with seem flat, cool, and disinterested, or over-the-top and melodramatic? Again, this has as much to do with what feels good to the other person as it does with what you personally prefer.|
|Timing and pace||What happens when you or someone you care about makes an important statement? Does a response—not necessarily verbal—come too quickly or too slowly? Is there an easy flow of information back and forth?|
|Sounds||Do you use sounds to indicate that you are attending to the other person? Do you pick up on sounds from others that indicate their caring or concern for you?|