Nonverbal Communication Tips

Updated on March 16, 2018
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My Master's degree is in Speech-Language Pathology. I've educated others about communication skills for over 25 years.

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What Is Nonverbal Communication and Why Is It Important?

In a nutshell, non-verbal communication generally includes any behavior that communicates messages or meaning other than words. It includes facial expressions, body movements, gestures, and other sounds that are not words. Non-verbal communication sends very strong messages and is often said to cancel verbal messages. Therefore it is likely true that actions may indeed speak louder than words!

Estimates indicate that non-verbal communication makes up between 78% and 93% of all communication that occurs between people. One estimate indicates that 38% of a message is communicated via the voice and other sounds, 55% by gestures and body language, and only 7% by words.

Clearly being able to interpret nonverbal communication accurately and to use it so that your messages are accurately received is important in personal relationships and in business situations as well. Whether you can handle customer service effectively or communicate your desires and frustrations with a spouse is often dependent upon nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal, Vocal Communication

As a child, you may have been told to "watch the tone of your voice", or that "it's not what you said, but how you said it" that got you into trouble. The idea that your voice, minus the words you actually speak, communicates messages probably is not new to you.

The speed, the pitch of your voice, the loudness, and where you place the stress within a sentence can all vary the meaning of a statement greatly. For instance, if I make the statement "I didn't say that", the meaning would vary based on which word in the sentence I stress.

  • I didn't say that. (this might mean I didn't say it but someone did)
  • I didn't say that. (this might mean I didn't say it but I thought it)
  • I didn't say that. (this might mean I didn't say that, but I did say something else.)
  • I didn't say that! (said with rising pitch and increased volume, could communicate frustration or anger at the suggestion you said something)

Our message is also influenced by other sounds we might make or pauses. For instance, a big sigh before speaking the statement above will communicate exasperation or impatience possibly. Laughter, "growling", and other sounds are also important.

The pitch and intonation of your voice also communicates information. Think of times when you have talked to a very small child or even a pet. They know immediately whether or not they are in trouble, even if the words mean nothing to them, just by the "tone" of your voice and loudness. Our use of pitch and intonation can vary the meaning of words such as the difference between the following statements:

  • "You are going with us." (this indicates a command)
  • "You are going with us?" (with the rising pitch, it is a question)

How a listener will perceive your message will be vastly different between these two statements!

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Gestures and Body Language

Facial expressions can be powerful communicators as well. Smiling, frowning, and rolling the eyes are examples. Imagine the difference in the message communicated when you state "Hey, you did a great job with that" and you roll your eyes, versus the message communicated when you state the same thing while smiling. One shows a sense of pride or congratulations on your performance, the other ridicule.

Other forms of body language which influence meaning include such things as turning away from someone, dozing off, closing your eyes, standing further away, standing closer, waving, pointing, strumming your fingers on the table, resting your head in your hand while talking/listening, etc. These actions can signal the difference between interest and disinterest, patience and impatience, attending and ignoring, defensiveness and openness, aggressiveness and passiveness, etc.

These may seem like small nuances but if you remember that communication isn't just about what you say, then you will do a better job of communicating what you mean.

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Tips for Better Using and Understanding Nonverbal Communication

Most non-verbal communication is automatic and the individual is not even aware that they are communicating in this way. For this reason, we need to be more conscious of our non-verbal behaviors to assure we communicate what we intend. Additionally, we need to become aware of the non-verbal communication of others to assure we "read" them correctly.

Here are a few tips:

  • Listen. This means working to understand what the speaker is saying and asking them to clarify things when you are in doubt as to their meaning. Repeating/rephrasing what you just heard is a way of doing this; "so you're saying...?" Being quiet and allowing the other person to communicate is a very important nonverbal skill.
  • Maintain eye contact. It allows the listener to know you are open to communication.
  • Watch the other person's nonverbal communication. You can sense when they are becoming defensive and adjust what you are doing. You can see when you've talked too long!
  • Uncrossing your arms/legs, raising your eyebrows, rubbing your chin, and leaning forward are all ways of showing interest to a listener.
  • Occasionally, a light touch on the arm, if things aren't heated, can establish a positive interaction. (Be wary however of touching if there is a heated exchange or any signs of escalation or aggression.)
  • Nodding your head often encourages someone to continue speaking and/or can indicate things you agree upon.
  • Modulating your voice to keep the volume down and to assure things don't sound accusatory can help in preventing an escalation.
  • Crossing your arms can make you appear "closed off" or defensive. Clenching your hands can have a similar effect. It's often best to just rest your hands lightly on the desk in front of you, clasp them lightly in your lap, or something similar to avoid gestures that might be interpreted as aggressive, authoritative, or something else.
  • If you have an appointment to discuss something important, don't keep them waiting. Being late is a nonverbal way of demonstrating disrespect and it increases anger. Acknowledge and apologize for your lateness if it occurs.
  • In general, avoid pointing directly at someone. It is often interpreted as aggression.
  • Use gestures, especially gesturing with the palms up, it indicates openness or a relaxed state.
  • Sitting while facing someone is non-threatening and open. Standing and crossing your arms is more aggressive. Sitting sideways to the person is like a "cold shoulder".
  • Speak more slowly when communicating longer, more complicated messages.
  • When the person speaking appears distressed or emotional, allow them more time to communicate. Pausing allows them to calm themselves and to formulate what they want to say.
  • If someone's words don't match their nonverbal communication, generally "go with" the nonverbal message.
  • If tension is anticipated assure a private place to meet without interruptions. (forward phone calls)
  • Avoid any distracting habitual nonverbal behaviors like excessive throat clearing, yawning, sighing.
  • When a listener uses self-touching it often indicates anxiety. Rubbing the face is often a way of trying to self-soothe so it indicates the listener is stressed.
  • Some listeners will pull their lips inward while you are talking or prior to speaking. It often means they are hesitant about saying something or concerned about how to it will be received.
  • Leaning your head on your hands tends to show disinterest, fatigue or something similar. This is also true of your listeners.
  • If the person you are engaging sticks their hip out and places their hand on it, they may be feeling attacked, on the defensive. Raising one hand, with the palm facing you (like a "stop" sign), may signal similar feelings.

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