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How to Use Nonverbal Communication to Project Strength and Confidence

Updated on June 18, 2017
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Our lives are made infinitely richer by our relationships. I love finding ways to strengthen them at home, at work, and with friends.

Non-verbal communication such as eye contact, hand gestures, and body language can make you seem stronger and more confident.
Non-verbal communication such as eye contact, hand gestures, and body language can make you seem stronger and more confident. | Source

Project Strength and Confidence Without Saying a Word

A regrettable recent experience made me realize how important non-verbal communication is – perhaps, more important than anything we say with words. I was volunteering backstage at a local children's theater production in which my son was performing – moving sets and props on and off the stage. The assistant director – stressed as if this were opening night of a multi-million dollar Broadway production – grabbed me aggressively from behind at the shoulders and dragged me to the exact spot where she wanted me to stand. Too shocked and humiliated to handle the situation at the moment like I should have, I said nothing – no verbal or non-verbal communication whatsoever – to let her know her behavior was wholly unacceptable. I was a doormat.

As I pondered the episode in the days to come, I asked myself some hard questions: Why did she do that to me and not the other volunteers? What could I have done to prevent that from happening and, most importantly, how could I stop that from ever occurring again? I realized it all came down to non-verbal communication. Without saying a word, I had let her know she could walk all over me.

Get More Respect by Using Non-Verbal Communication

But remaining a doormat was not an option for me. After all, doormats wear out over time – fraying at the edges and becoming unsightly – as people step on them over and over. Eventually they get discarded. I didn't want this to happen to me...but, I knew it already was.

I had become a doormat in many areas of my life since my son got diagnosed with autism. The incident backstage was simply the most recent and egregious. So I started to diet, exercise, dress better, stand taller, and work on how I presented myself to the world. I'm short (5'1”) and middle-aged so I was an easy target in those two areas I couldn't change. So I began to look at areas that I could alter and I landed on my non-verbal communication skills. By focusing on those, I immediately saw a difference as people began to treat me with more respect.

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.

— Peter F. Drucker

What Are Non-Verbal Communication Skills?

Like so many of us, I overlooked non-verbal communication skills as a way to assert myself in the world. However, I soon discovered they're an important tool in our arsenal, allowing us to say so much without uttering a word. According to research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrhabian, author of Silent Messages, communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal part consists of 55 percent body language (facial expressions, gestures, posture) and 38 percent tone of voice.

In many instances – as was the case when I was backstage at the performance – talking is not an option. I needed to convey that I was a strong person worthy of respect without saying a word. Given the outcome, I did a lousy job of that. But since that episode, I learned how to show confidence in the following three significant ways: eye contact, hand gestures, and body language.

Many of Us Who Are Shy and Insecure Have Poor Eye Contact and It Hurts Our Communication

The eyes are powerful tools when communicating.
The eyes are powerful tools when communicating. | Source

The Eyes Have It: Communicating Confidence With Just a Glance

As the mother of a child with autism, I spent a lot of time reminding my son to make eye contact. Therefore, it's ironic that I was not using that skill myself to its full advantage. As I gained weight, grew older, and lost confidence, I unconsciously wanted to become less visible – to hide from view – and not get judged by others. Yet, that was a serious mistake because people think negatively of those who don't sustain eye contact. This is what the research shows:

  • When you sustain eye contact, others see you as someone who feels good about herself – secure and confident.

As I began to sustain eye contact with people, I saw instant results. People in stores gave me better service. My teenagers listened to me, and all my interactions – with family, friends, and strangers – were friendlier and more gratifying. Knowing I'd be making eye contact, I gave my appearance more attention – wearing makeup, styling my hair, putting on earrings and necklaces. Now I was projecting more strength and confidence with my appearance as well as my eye contact, and people were responding favorably.

What Is Congruent Communication?

It's a communication pattern in which the person sends the same message on both verbal and nonverbal levels. For instance, a person who says, “I love you” would do so with a sweet tone of voice, a warm smile, and twinkly eyes. Research shows that when communication is incongruent, listeners rely on the non-verbal message and discard the verbal one.

People Who Use Hand Gestures Are Seen as Warmer and More Energetic

Hand gestures and other non-verbal communication should be congruent, matching what is being said.
Hand gestures and other non-verbal communication should be congruent, matching what is being said. | Source

Hand Gestures: Adding Credibility and Passion to Your Words

While picking up my son from middle school, I sat in the car and watched two women conversing on the sidewalk. Although I couldn't hear a word they were saying, I became captivated by their interaction. Their animated hand gestures made everything about their conversation seem dramatic, exciting, and alive. I wanted to become a part of it. It got me thinking about how seldom I use hand gestures and wondering whether they're an effective way to convey strength and confidence. This is what I discovered from my research:

  • People tend to view those who use a variety of hand gestures in a positive way. They see them as warm, agreeable, and energetic.

  • People tend to view those who show no hand gestures as cold and indifferent.

  • People tend to trust those who align their hand gestures to what they are saying.

  • People do not view all hand gestures the same. They perceive a speaker as honest if her hands are open and her palms are up at a 45-degree angle. They see a speaker as nervous and unsettled if she grasps her hands in front of her body.
  • Studies show that hand gestures should stay controlled and close to the body – from the top of the chest to the bottom of the waist. People perceive anything beyond this range as distracting and out of control.

The single biggest problem with communication...is the illusion that it has been accomplished.

— George Bernard Shaw

Making the First Move With a Firm Handshake Sets the Tone for the Conversation

A firm handshake sets the tone for your encounter and puts you in the driver's seat.
A firm handshake sets the tone for your encounter and puts you in the driver's seat. | Source

Body Language: Appearing Powerful and Competent

Since I had spoken little with the assistant director before she manhandled me, I concluded that my body language had failed to communicate power and competence. She sized me up as an easy target from the way I carried myself. Since I'm short and middle-aged, I needed to think about ways to appear mightier. This is what I learned from my research:

  • Get off to a good start by extending your arm and giving a firm handshake. Patting the person's shoulder with your other hand while doing this gives you even more control.

  • Pay attention to your posture. To project assertiveness, stand with your body upright and both feet firmly planted and spaced comfortably apart.

  • When someone behaves in an aggressive way towards you, handle the situation steadily and immediately without escalating the situation. When you don't handle the problem instantly, you're seen as passive and the person may intensify.

Thinking about this made me remember that the assistant director had pulled on the back of my shirt the day before she manhandled me, and I had done nothing. My inaction gave her a green light to escalate. By not turning around, looking at her directly in the face, and saying “don't do that,” I opened the door for the assault. Dr. Phil says, “We teach people how to treat us” and I obviously taught her to treat me poorly.

Final Thoughts

Although the assault shocked and humiliated me, I'm glad it happened. It was the wake up call I needed to take a hard look at how I was presenting myself to the world. I did look downwards too much. I did fail to make the first move when introducing myself -- extending an arm and giving a firm handshake. I rarely made hand gestures, and I tended to slouch.

By becoming aware of eye contact, hand gestures, and body language, I immediately saw results as people showed more respect and kindness to me. I turned it into a game to see how my actions could shape their responses. This made social interactions more fun, and I started enjoying people a lot more. I'll never let anyone manhandle me again – no way, no how, not happening!

If You Want to Appear More Confident and Powerful Without Saying a Word, This Is the Book for You!

As an introvert, I needed effective ways to communicate without using a lot of words. As a short middle-aged woman, I needed strategies for looking confident and powerful. As a mother, wife, and employee, I needed help reading other people -- figuring out what they were really saying beyond their words. This book did all that for me and so much more. It gave me incredible insight into the untapped world of non-verbal communication and gave me the tools I needed to say so much without saying anything at all.

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image
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      McKenna Meyers 17 months ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks, Bill. It feels good to turn a negative experience into something empowering. Thanks for reading!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 17 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Excellent information, made better by adding your personal experiences...thank you for sharing.