The Art of Non-Verbal Communication – What Are You Really Saying?

Posted by Melissa Meunier on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 @ 11:30 AM

information, conversation, communication, ideas

The show “Lie To Me” was a short lived, yet completely plausible crime series centered on a doctor who taught a course in body language and made his livelihood exploiting it.  Inspired by the work of Paul Ekman, the world’s foremost expert on facial expressions, the show tackled the science behind non-verbal behaviors, micro expressions and psychological techniques to reach the truth.

While crime and deceit are not subjects being dealt with in many companies, the art of communication is. Of the millions of words we use to communicate on a daily basis, studies show approximately 90% of our communication is non-verbal. 

Non-verbal communication is the process of communicating through (mostly) visual behaviors or body language.  Non-verbal communication is not just a single thing; it’s a group of behaviors. Those behaviors – eye contact, gestures, the way we stand, how fast we speak, and how close we stand - send strong messages.  When it comes to communication we often take time to think about the words we will use to convey a message - but do we stop and think about how we will deliver it? 

Often what we say verbally and what we convey through body language are two totally different things.  When we send mixed messages, the listener has to decide whether to believe the verbal or non-verbal message.  Often the non-verbal message is chosen, as it is the most natural, unconscious language that broadcasts the true feelings and intentions at any given moment.

There are seven non-verbal communication behaviors that have been identified.  While each of these can been divided deeper, these seven are the standard actions most recognized:

  • Eye Contact – Eye contact can communicate interest and establish a connection. As some may say it is the window to the soul; eyes indicate engagement, attention and involvement. Give the eye contact that makes everyone feel comfortable.  Unless looking at others is a cultural no-no, lookers gain more credibility than non-lookers.
  • Posture – There are many different types of body positioning  - slouching, towering, jaw thrust, arm crosses, etc. Each can communicate a variety of good or bad messages.  Posture can also be used to determine the degree of attention, engagement, or involvement with another.  Being “open” and showing command can impact how a message is received.
  • Facial Expressions –The human face is extremely expressive and the ”looks” might just be the greatest indicator of our emotional state.  Do you appear emotionally present and filled with interest or unexpressive and not engaged?
  • Paralanguage  - Theses subtle movements are vocalizations that are not words.  Every sigh, tick, pen tap or knee bounce gives off a message – whether its nervousness or disinterest. While these actions are often unconscious they can be interpreted as negative.
  • Touch – There is a great deal of communication through touch - a handshake, back slap or pat on the shoulder. The meaning conveyed from touch is highly dependent upon the culture, the context of the situation and the relationship between the communicators.  It is important to recognize situations where touch makes someone feel uncomfortable.
  • Gestures – Notice how gestures are perceived. They should support and enhance the words we are saying –they should not overwhelm or contradict.  Gestures are woven into daily life – we wave, point and beckon – often without thinking.
  • Proximity – Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was invading your personal space? Every person has a need for his or her own physical space.  This differs between culture, situation and relationship. Be cognizant of how you are using your space and others around you.

Simply stated, non-verbal communication (or body language) is best described as external evidence of ones emotional state. While what you say is important, it’s more important that the body language matches the message you are conveying. Being a better communicator is being sensitive to the body language and non-verbal behaviors of others, but also your own. When your non-verbal signals match with the verbal message, it will increase engagement, trust, and rapport with others. 

Topics: coaching, communication, leadership