A positive-communication goes a long way in establishing credible relationships and making an effective conversation. Understanding what others are saying is an essential part of any communication. But most of us often consider communication as what we say or the words that we use. However, interpersonal communication is more than the words we use, information and meaning they convey. It also includes messages whether intentional or not, which we express through our non-verbal behaviours. It is more of not what we we say, but how we say.
In other words, eighty percent of the meaning is communicated non-verbally and only a small percentage of it involves the words we often carefully choose to use. For instance, normal stance, but not squared off, leaning towards more, furrowed brows, when you miss out on such cues in a conversation, you may hear words, but understand totally a different meaning than what was intended.
Non-verbal communication not only influences how we are perceived, respected and trusted by others, but also how we think of ourselves. But most of the times, in our interactions with others, we either don’t pay attention to or unaware of the non-verbal signals we are giving off and receiving. Developing an ability to understand people’s non-verbal behaviour and also be aware of yours in a conversation is an important tool for any effective communication.
Why is it important to understand non-verbal communication
We subconsciously use non-verbal communication as a roadmap to discover others’ intentions or credibility and draw automatic conclusions about them. It has the power to draw others towards you, can build trust or it can offend or confuse others.When you don’t pay enough attention to your non-verbal communication, you may end up sending mixed messages where what you speak and what you communicate can be totally different. Here is more to why it is important to understand non-verbal signals.
- It reinforces or helps to modify what is said in words. For instance, nodding your head when saying ‘yes’ emphasises you agree with a person. A shrug and a sad expression when saying ‘I’m fine’ may actually imply that things are not. They help you better connect with others, express what you really mean, and navigate challenging situations.
- Builds trust-based and credible relationships. The way you listen, look, move and react tell the person you are communicating with whether or not you care, understand and truthful. When your non-verbals match up with the words you are saying, they accentuate trust, and help you build credible, trust-based relationships.
- Forming first impression. Research suggests that we form first impression within first few minutes of our communication based on non-verbal messages we receive. During which we quickly place a person within our inner catalog ranking them according to posture, appearance, eye contact and vocal cues.
- For better interpersonal communication like while receiving and giving feedbacks, raising appraisals, giving performance reviews, job interviews. They convey confidence, depth of knowledge and attitudes. Whether you are critiquing or appraising a coworker’s performance, they help you convey your true intent thereby leaving no space for misunderstandings.
- For conflict resolution. When people are in the middle of a conflict, their words rarely convey the heart of the problem. By paying close attention to their non-verbal cues such as gestures, tone of the voice or facial expressions, you can respond in a more positive way. A calm tone of voice, a reassuring touch or an interested facial expression can go long way relaxing a heated exchange.
- Emotional awareness. Being aware of your own non-verbal behaviour in a conflict can help you to better control your negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness.
Types of Non-verbal communication
Non-verbal communication provides an array of information that may confirm, clarify or confuse and contradict the words someone uses. Interpreting it precisely is not that simple as it is with other languages with fixed meaning. It is influenced and driven by the context in which it occurs and includes both the place and the people concerned as well as the culture.
To understand nuances of such communication, you should be aware of what non-verbal cues you are receiving and communicating. Here are different types of non-verbal communication, what they really mean and what to look for.
- Kinesics or Body movements. This involves how you move our body, head, hands and arms. For instance, when you are bored, you may gaze around or may shift positions frequently, rather than look at the person who is speaking. This also includes sending messages through gestures, eye contact and posture.
- Eye contact often determines your level of trustworthiness. Since visual sense is dominant for most of us, eye contact is an important type of — that conveys interest, affection, concern, hostility, interest or attention. For instance, maintaining eye contact during a conversation with coworkers will help you build trust and lets them know that you care and reinforces confidence in what you are saying and increases your credibility. Both avoiding and giving too much eye contact can have negative implications. Whereas, sufficient eye contact shows they have sincere interest in speaking with you.
- Gesture is a deliberate body movement that expresses specific and intentional meaning. Our perceptions of people are also affected by other gestures like waving, pointing, arms crossed or fidgeting. They emphasise an idea or an argument. For instance, exposed hands reveal honesty and hidden hands reveal that you are withholding information.A firm handshake means they are attempting to convey a sense of poise and confidence. On the other hand, a weak handshake can signal nervousness and an overly strong handshake can signal intentional aggression.
- Posture. We also communicate messages by the way we walk, stand or sit. For instance, whether your arms crossed or uncrossed, shrugged shoulders, or slouching. Standing straight, but not rigid and leaning slightly forward communicates that you are keen, receptive and friendly. Similarly, speaking with your back turned or looking away sends negative messages.Recognise good posture. An upright and erect posture conveys power and authority and signals that they are eager to engage in a conversation.
- Facial expressions like frowning, blinking and smiling express various emotions. For instance, a smile is perceived as friendly, warm and approachable. Other broad facial expressions show strong emotions, such as fear, anger and happiness.Watch for genuine smiles in your conversation with others. A forced or a fake smile normally hides negative feelings.
- Haptics or touch. Touch can denote relationship, status, power and personality. For instance, we tend to greet a friend informally, whereas we would greet a coworker in a professional scenario differently.
- Para-language. Factors like how you speak, your voice, tone, timing, pace or how loud you speak. For instance, your tone of voice can indicate sarcasm, anger or confidence. Similarly, quality, tempo and articulation helps determine the context of the message or may denote inner conflict or aggression when your voice gets louder and pitch higher.
- Proxemics or personal space. Space and distance express the degree of intimacy and individual acceptance. But, use of personal space and what meaning it conveys varies from culture to culture and mostly depends on the context and people involved. The use of personal space can also communicate things like affection, aggression, or dominance. Pay attention when someone stands close to you. Personal proximity indicates they are comfortable.
When non-verbal communication can go wrong
Non-verbal communication can be particularly hard to consciously control because of its emotional and instinctive nature. This may sometimes complicate a particular communication.
Reading single cues sometimes leads to assumptions as it is not possible to interpret a gesture or expression accurately on its own and consists complete package of expressions, hand movements, postures and gestures which should be interpreted along with verbal messages.
Also, non-verbal communication can be very culture-specific because of which it can be misinterpreted if one is not aware of practices specific to a region, person or a group you are communicating with. A common instance is the thumbs-up gesture signals approval in English-speaking countries and considered offensive in other countries.
Some of the non-verbals might also result in creating false impressions. For instance, resting your face in the palm of your hand may always not convey boredom or disinterest. It might also mean tiredness or may be that he or she is using this position to focus.
How to improve your non-verbal communication
Identify negative non-verbal cues. This can help you avoid uncomfortable confrontations or unpleasant conversations.If you notice someone maintaining excessive eye contact with you, there is a chance that they are not being truthful.Positive verbal message accompanied with negative gestures like crossed arms or legs denote disinterest in what you are saying.
Too much of nodding indicates that the person you are speaking to wants you to stop talking and want their turn to speak, or it would mean they lack confidence around you and are nervous about how you perceive them. leaning back shows anxiousness and disinterest. Hands on back of neck might mean not in agreement and tightened lips or clenched fist to show anger or distress.
Pay attention to inconsistencies. If listener picks up wrong cues and understands a different message, he or she will likely to believe your unintended non-verbal message as intended which lowers your credibility in a relationship. Are you saying one thing and your non-verbals saying something else? Be aware of your inconsistencies. Your non-verbal language must reinforce what you are saying and should be according to the context.
Use cues that match up with what you say rather than contradict them. Similarly, look for any inconsistencies or if there is any mismatch between verbal and non-verbal messages of the person you are conversing with. If you get the sense that someone isn’t being honest or that something isn’t adding up, check whether you are reading too much into a single cue. Instead consider all non-verbal cues you are receiving from eye contact facial expressions, verbal cues and body language together as a group.
Questions for self-reflection
How self-aware are you of your non-verbal communication?
How spatially aware are you in your conversations with a new acquaintance?
Do you make eye contact – if so, is it intense or just right?
Are you conscious of your body language and the general message you are sending ?
How good are you in reading non-verbal messages of the person you are in conversation with?
In which situations, do you notice a mismatch between your verbal and non-verbal messages?
How often do you draw conclusions based on non-verbal language of others in a conversation?
How often do you focus on your facial expressions, posture and gestures in a conversation?
Even though non-verbal language is an integral part of our overall communication, most of us remain unaware of our non-verbal behaviours. Acquiring the skill of reading and recognising non-verbal cues can help you to avoid assumptions, misinterpretations and conflicts. They can lead to shared understanding of what someone is trying to tell you and also help you to correct your own non-verbal behaviours.
When it comes to choosing between your verbal and non-verbal messages, majority of times the listener is most likely to choose non-verbal messages because they truly reveal your true feelings and intentions. It is important to remember that they have a great impact on the listener and the outcome of the communication. Be more self-aware of your non-verbal communication next time around in your conversations.