Understanding and using nonverbal communication

We’re always communicating, even when we’re not speaking. Even if we’re not talking or gesturing with our hands, we’re still sending cues through our gaze or posture; these signals are interpreted by others. We reveal a lot about our emotions and intentions from the way we stand and sit in relation to other people, whether we maintain eye contact and for how long, and by our facial expressions.

In the 1960s, American psychologist Albert Mehrabian claimed that only 7% of the emotional impact of a presentation is conveyed through words, whereas 55% is conveyed through body language and 38% through tone of voice. In short: Nonverbal communication is crucial to how our words are understood. But many people still underestimate the importance of non-verbal communication. We can greatly improve our personal and professional relationships by understanding the nonverbal communication of others and effectively using nonverbal cues ourselves.

What is nonverbal communication?

Definition

Nonverbal communication can be defined as any form of individual or mass communication without words. The term comes from the Latin words “non” (not), “verbum” (word) and “communicare” (to share). Sign language and written language are not considered nonverbal communication because they are based on spoken language or build on it.

Nonverbal communication is the oldest form of interpersonal communication. Our ancestors used sounds and body language to communicate before spoken language existed. Nonverbal communication can be unconscious, semi-conscious or conscious, but we can’t control every type of nonverbal communication at will. For example, some people blush or sweat when they get nervous. We often have little control over these physical reactions. Besides, we have no ability at all to change our personal body odour, which also sends cues to other people. On the other hand, we can change other cues such as our posture or tone of voice. There are many different ways of communicating without words.

Examples of the most important types of nonverbal communication:

Facial expressions

We consciously and unconsciously convey a wide range of emotions through our faces, from a smile to a frown.

Gestures

We can use hand movements to emphasise our words, signal defensiveness and openness, and convey our feelings without words. Examples include upturned palms (openness), expansive hand gestures (self-assurance), and shrugging (indifference).

Eye contact

Our ability to maintain eye contact has a big effect on our audience. People who avoid eye contact are easily perceived as being disinterested, insecure or embarrassed. Prolonged eye contact can make people uncomfortable, however.

Body language

The way we walk or stand says a lot about our personality. Long steps, an upright walking posture and feet firmly planted on the ground are often interpreted as signs of decisiveness, confidence and courage. Similarly, we send signals of like or dislike by facing the other person or turning our upper body away from them.

Habitus

The concept of habitus (or “condition,” from the Latin verb “habere,” meaning “to hold.”) refers to the our overall mannerisms and habits, the way we appear, including our clothing, hairstyle, the accessories we wear, the hobbies we pursue and the means of transportation we use. These aspects allow others to draw conclusions about our social and societal standing.

Paraverbal communication

Paraverbal communication is the way we convey our messages verbally. It includes things like intonation as well as the speed, volume and pitch of our speech.

What role does nonverbal communication play in everyday life?

Nonverbal communication influences social interactions in many ways. Many nonverbal cues are conveyed unconsciously, so they’re often more reliable than verbal messages when reading someone’s state of mind.Knowing this can be helpful when you’re interpreting nonverbal messages, but it’s also useful to be aware of your own and when you want to persuade someone in a conversation or negotiation.If you know how certain facial expressions and gestures affect other people and put these cues to good use, you’ll know how to persuade others better.

When interpreting someone else’s non-verbal cues, you can infer a lot about someone’s emotional state and intentions based on their sitting posture, eye contact or slight hand gestures. Most people are more willing to trust someone if the person’s words and nonverbal cues match, and we interpret the nonverbal signals as positive.

We quickly begin to doubt the other person’s trustworthiness or competence if their words and non-verbal cues don’t match. When that happens, most people remember the non-verbal cue better because it’s usually done unconsciously and appears more honest.

When trying to be aware of our own non-verbal cues, we can consciously use nonverbal communication to:

  • Inspire trust
  • Strengthen the effect of our words
  • Radiate self-confidence
  • Gain support

For example, if your boss congratulates you for a job well done, a handshake emphasises the verbal message. During a presentation, you can use facial expressions and gestures to emphasise your words and communicate your messages more clearly.

Studies have shown that nonverbal communication not only affects those who interpreting the other person. The person doing the communication can also use it to influence their own emotions. Job applicants who consciously assumed a self-confident posture for a few seconds prior to a interview behaved more confidently in the interview and were ultimately more successful.

In group situations, nonverbal communication is often used to strengthen the sense of community, for example when the audience applauds during a concert or when a stadium of soccer fans do a Mexican wave.

How to correctly interpret nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is complex and how you interpret it often depends on the social context. There’s no dictionary of universally defined nonverbal messages.

But there are some fundamental nonverbal cues that are universally understood all over the world. According to psychologist Paul Ekman, seven basic emotions are conveyed with the same facial expressions in every culture: happiness, anger, disgust, fear, contempt, sadness and surprise. Big cultural and regional differences do exist, however.

Here are some tips that will help you improve your ability to decipher nonverbal communication:

Manage stress

Keep your stress level low. When you’re under pressure, your mental resources are limited. When under stress, you’re far more likely to misinterpret nonverbal cues or fail to notice them at all.

Develop emotional awareness

You won’t be able to correctly interpret emotional cues in other peoples’ body language unless you’re aware of your own feelings and know how to influence them. Regularly take the time to explore how your feelings affect your posture, facial expressions, gestures, and voice modulation.

Consider context

The cultural, situational and personal context has a big effect on how we assess non-verbal cues. A bent posture might convey a lack of self-confidence, but in someone with back trouble, it may simply be a message of pain. Crossed arms can signal defensiveness, but some people almost always cross their arms out of habit.

Evaluate the totality of cues

You can’t successfully interpret the other person’s state of mind by reading a single nonverbal cue. You have to pick up on a multitude of nonverbal signals the person is broadcasting over different nonverbal channels.

Communicate your own observations

If you’re unsure how to interpret certain nonverbal cues, talk to the other person instead of jumping to conclusions. Does the posture of the person you’re talking to seem to signal a lack of concentration? Offer them a break. If your co-worker seems annoyed and dismissive with you, tell them so and give them the opportunity to correct your observations.

Follow your intuition

Nonverbal communication can seem confusing, ambiguous and contradictory. When in doubt, trust your intuition. It can often be a subconscious response to your observations and your history with certain people or situations. Therefore, you’re often totally right to trust your intuition (although, as discussed above, you can certainly ask the other person what they’re feeling, if appropriate for the situation).

Tips for nonverbal communication at work

If you completely ignore nonverbal cues when communicating in the workplace, you’ll encounter difficulties sooner or later. Professional success involves more than just subject-matter expertise. Soft skills and social skills are also important. If you’re in a management position, you have to know how to deal with your employees. Your professional life is likely to be smoother and more successful the better you can read the non-verbal cues of business partners, colleagues and customers, and the better you are at controlling your own nonverbal communication.

As mentioned above, it’s difficult to give universal tips for interpreting and sending nonverbal cues. But if we confine ourselves to the European and North American context, we can make general recommendations on how to use nonverbal communication to make a more self-confident impression and win the support of others.

  1. Mirror the nonverbal behaviour of your audience: Obviously, you can’t do this if the other person doesn’t adhere to basic rules of civility. (For example, if the other person is going berserk and screaming, don’t mirror their behaviour!) You can normally create trust if you slightly mirror the other person’s intonation, body language and facial expressions. This behaviour is unconsciously interpreted as “common ground” and makes the other person more receptive to your words.
  2. Keep the right distance: Every person has a personal space zone that is reserved for close friends and family. In many cultures, the radius of this zone is about the length of an arm. You shouldn’t invade this space without permission. The normal distance for a conversation is between 60 and 150 centimetres. You can vary this distance depending on how well you know the other person.
  3. Check your sitting posture: If you want to make a confident first impression, whether you’re in a job interview or a team meeting, make use of the whole seat instead of just sitting at the edge of your chair. Otherwise, you’re signalling that you’re unsettled or nervous and don’t want to be there. Sit upright but not stiff. Don’t sprawl out on your chair and don’t lean all the way back. This can make you seem disinterested or arrogant. Instead, lean in every now and then to signal attentiveness. And if possible, don’t sit directly opposite the other person because that can create a confrontational mood.
  4. Pay attention to eye contact: Eye contact is one of the most important nonverbal signals. It makes you look confident, open and trustworthy. However, you shouldn’t look the other person in the eye for more than 3 seconds. Otherwise, your gaze will be perceived as a stare and trigger discomfort instead of trust.
  5. Confident standing posture: You’ll always be perceived as confident when you assume a natural standing posture. Your feet should be hip-width apart and your arms should hang naturally down the sides of your body. Contrary to what some experts say, you don’t always have to distribute your weight evenly between both legs. You won’t make a negative impression if you shift from one leg to the other occasionally. In fact, shifting your weight can increase your comfort and ultimately make you feel more confident.

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