Often, we are unaware of the messages we communicate through our appearance, body movements, voice, or our facial expressions, but these nonverbal messages pack a big punch.
Social scientists say that around two-thirds of our communication is nonverbal. So no matter what we’re doing, we are sending messages about ourselves: how we feel, our attitudes, our personalities. Even the spaces we occupy – our homes, desks and cars, reveal something about us.
It’s not what we say, rather, it’s how we say it and what we do. This includes vocal sounds, tone of voice, facial expressions, how close or far away we sit or stand from each other, gestures and posture. It encompasses all the messages we express without using language.
We need to look beyond words.
Becoming self-aware and mindful
The first step in developing our nonverbal communication skills is being self-aware. This involves monitoring and reflecting on our behaviours, our motivations, our thoughts. As we develop self-awareness, we become better attuned to the nonverbal messages we’re sending.
We also need to be present, or mindful. We need to focus on the here-and-now. Engage with people in the moment.
This isn’t easy. It requires concentration because nonverbal cues are moment-to-moment occurrences. If we’re thinking about what we are going to have for dinner, or daydreaming about our next holiday while we are in conversation, we may miss important cues. Our inattention may also be visible through our nonverbal cues.
Important nonverbal behaviours in relationships
Facial expressions and eye movements
The face is the canvas which displays our emotions. It is the most expressive part of our body.
Scientists have identified six emotions which are easily recognised though our facial expressions:
different emotions show most clearly in different parts of the face: happiness and surprise in the eyes and lower face; anger in the lower face, brows and forehead; fear and sadness in the eyes; and disgust in the lower face.
Even the pupils of our eyes send messages. The larger the pupils when looking at someone or something, the more interested we are.
Posture and body orientation
We can tell a lot about how people are feeling by observing how they sit or stand. Often it is the small, less obvious things that provide the clues. The orientation of the body toward someone is an indication of interest, but just by turning slightly away, it signals that we don’t want to engage, that we don’t want any involvement.
Leaning toward the other person whilst in conversation also shows that we’re interested in what he has to say. Shoulders which are hunched up indicate tenseness and leaning back in the chair shows that we are relaxed.
Gestures, or movements of the arms and hands are so fundamental to us we do them without thinking. Our hand gestures increase when we become angry, agitated or excited, when we are trying to explain something or when we can’t find the word in a foreign language (sometimes in our native tongue as well).
Nodding our heads in agreement; shaking them to disagree or to say no; waving to greet someone; the one-finger salute as a sign of contempt – are signs which we all understand.
We touch our hair, fidget with our mobile phones, rub our eyes and fiddle with our clothes. Sometimes these types of gestures send messages that we are uncomfortable or anxious or feel stressed. But they could also mean the opposite – that we are relaxed. It depends on the context.
So we need to look for further cues before we make judgements.
Tone of voice, pitch, how fast or slowly we speak provide clues about our emotional state. Whether we are anxious, sad, angry, excited or feel confident, may be revealed through our voice.
Touch is important in our personal relationships. A warm handshake says we are happy to meet the other person. A gentle touch on the arm indicates liking. We hug each other to show affection and hold hands with our loved ones to feel close. Other kinds of touch however, such as slaps, gripping the arm, shoves or pokes may signal dislike, aggression or domination.
Nonverbal communication is known as a ‘relationship language’.  It expresses how we feel about each other. By monitoring our own nonverbal behaviours and becoming more self-aware we develop skills at decoding the messages others send through their body language.
If we understand nonverbal cues we become adept in managing social situations, we are able to build good relationships and become more successful at work.
Next time you’re in conversation, pay attention to the nonverbal messages your partner is sending. You may be surprised at how much additional information you’ll gain from being mindful.
- Adler, R.B & Towne, N 2003 Looking Out Looking In Wadsworth/Thomson, CA, USA.
- Adler, R.B & Towne, N 2003.
- Gamble, T.K. & Gamble, M.W. 2014 Interpersonal Communication – Building connections together Sage Publications Inc.