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Nonverbal Communication

Improving Your Nonverbal Skills and Reading Body Language

Nonverbal communication

It's well known that good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, be it personal or professional. It's important to recognize, though, that it's our nonverbal communication—our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice—that speak the loudest. The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication, or body language, is a powerful tool that can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, and build better relationships.

What is nonverbal communication and body language?

When we interact with others, we continuously give and receive wordless signals. All of our nonverbal behaviors—the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages. These messages don't stop when you stop speaking either. Even when you're silent, you're still communicating nonverbally.

In many instances, what comes out of your mouth and what you communicate through your body language are two totally different things. When faced with these mixed signals, the listener has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message. Invariably, they're going to choose the nonverbal because it's a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts your true feelings and intentions.

Why nonverbal communication matters

The way you listen, look, move, and react tells the other person whether or not you care, if you’re being truthful, and how well you’re listening. When your nonverbal signals match up with the words you’re saying, they increase trust, clarity, and rapport. When they don’t, they can generate tension, mistrust, and confusion.

If you want to become a better communicator, it’s important to become more sensitive not only to the body language and nonverbal cues of others, but also to your own.

Nonverbal communication cues can play five roles:

  • Repetition: they can repeat the message the person is making verbally.
  • Contradiction: they can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey.
  • Substitution: they can substitute for a verbal message. For example, a person's eyes can often convey a far more vivid message than words.
  • Complementing: they may add to or complement a verbal message. A boss who pats a person on the back in addition to giving praise can increase the impact of the message.
  • Accenting: they may accent or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can underline a message.

Source: The Importance of Effective Communication, Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D.

Types of nonverbal communication and body language

The many different types of nonverbal communication include:

Facial expressions

The human face is extremely expressive, able to express countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across cultures.

Body movements and posture

Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand, or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world. This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance, and subtle movements.

Gestures

Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. However, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation.

Eye contact

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest and response.

Touch

We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a weak handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring slap on the back, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on the arm.

Space

Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was standing too close and invading your space? We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the culture, the situation, and the closeness of the relationship. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy and affection, aggression or dominance.

Voice

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. Things they pay attention to include your timing and pace, how loud you speak, your tone and inflection, and sounds that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-huh.” Think about how someone's tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.

Nonverbal communication can’t be faked

You may be familiar with advice on how to sit a certain way, steeple your fingers, or shake hands just so in order to appear confident or assert dominance. But the truth is that such tricks aren’t likely to work (unless you truly feel confident and in charge). That’s because you can’t control all of the signals you’re constantly sending off about what you’re really thinking and feeling. And the harder you try, the more unnatural your signals are likely to come across.

How nonverbal communication can go wrong

What you communicate through your body language and nonverbal signals affects how others see you, how well they like and respect you, and whether or not they trust you. Unfortunately, many people send confusing or negative nonverbal signals without even knowing it. When this happens, both connection and trust are damaged.

Nonverbal communication in relationships

Ted, Arlene, and Jack are all articulate speakers who say one thing while communicating something else nonverbally, with disastrous results in their relationships:

Jack

believes he gets along great with his colleagues at work, but if you were to ask any of them, they would say that Jack is "intimidating" and "very intense." Rather than just look at you, he seems to devour you with his eyes. And if he takes your hand, he lunges to get it and then squeezes so hard it hurts. Jack is a caring guy who secretly wishes he had more friends, but his nonverbal awkwardness keeps people at a distance and limits his ability to advance at work.

Arlene

is attractive and has no problem meeting eligible men, but she has a difficult time maintaining a relationship longer than a few months. Arlene is funny and interesting, but even though she constantly laughs and smiles, she radiates tension. Her shoulders and eyebrows are noticeably raised, her voice is shrill, and her body is stiff. Being around Arlene makes many people feel anxious and uncomfortable. Arlene has a lot going for her that is undercut by the discomfort she evokes in others.

Ted

thought he had found the perfect match when he met Sharon, but Sharon wasn't so sure. Ted is good looking, hardworking, and a smooth talker, but seemed to care more about his thoughts than Sharon's. When Sharon had something to say, Ted was always ready with wild eyes and a rebuttal before she could finish her thought. This made Sharon feel ignored, and soon she started dating other men. Ted loses out at work for the same reason. His inability to listen to others makes him unpopular with many of the people he most admires.

These smart, well-intentioned people struggle in their attempt to connect with others. The sad thing is that they are unaware of the nonverbal messages they communicate.

If you want to communicate effectively, avoid misunderstandings, and enjoy solid, trusting relationships both socially and professionally, it’s important to understand how to use and interpret nonverbal signals.

Setting the stage for effective nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is a rapidly flowing back-and-forth process that requires your full focus on the moment-to-moment experience. If you’re planning what you’re going to say next, daydreaming, or thinking about something else, you’re almost certain to miss nonverbal cues and not fully understand the subtleties of what’s being communicated.

To improve nonverbal communication, learn to manage stress

Stress compromises your ability to communicate. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior. And remember: emotions are contagious. You being upset is very likely to make others upset, thus making a bad situation worse.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s best to take a time out. Take a moment to calm down before you jump back into the conversation. Once you’ve regained your emotional equilibrium, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s best to take a time out. Take a moment to calm down before you jump back into the conversation. Once you’ve regained your emotional equilibrium, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way.

How emotional awareness strengthens nonverbal communication

In order to send accurate nonverbal cues, you need to be aware of your emotions and how they influence you. You also need to be able to recognize the emotions of others and the true feelings behind the cues they are sending. This is where emotional awareness comes in.

Emotional awareness enables you to:

  • Accurately read other people, including the emotions they’re feeling and the unspoken messages they’re sending.
  • Create trust in relationships by sending nonverbal signals that match up with your words.
  • Respond in ways that show others that you understand and care.
  • Know if the relationship is meeting your emotional needs, giving you the option to either repair the relationship or move on.

Tips for reading body language

Once you’ve developed your abilities to manage stress and recognize emotions, you’ll naturally become better at reading the nonverbal signals sent by others.

Pay attention to inconsistencies. Nonverbal communication should reinforce what is being said. Is the person is saying one thing, and their body language something else? For example, are they telling you “yes” while shaking their head no?

Look at nonverbal communication signals as a group. Don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Consider all of the nonverbal signals you are receiving, from eye contact to tone of voice and body language. Taken together, are their nonverbal cues consistent—or inconsistent—with what their words are saying?

Trust your instincts. Don’t dismiss your gut feelings. If you get the sense that someone isn’t being honest or that something isn’t adding up, you may be picking up on a mismatch between verbal and nonverbal cues.

Evaluating nonverbal signals

Eye contact – Is eye contact being made? If so, is it overly intense or just right?

Facial expression – What is their face showing? Is it masklike and unexpressive, or emotionally present and filled with interest?

Tone of voice – Does the person's voice project warmth, confidence, and interest, or is it strained and blocked?

Posture and gesture – Is their body relaxed or stiff and immobile? Are shoulders tense and raised, or relaxed?

Touch – Is there any physical contact? Is it appropriate to the situation? Does it make you feel uncomfortable?

Intensity – Does the person seem flat, cool, and disinterested, or over-the-top and melodramatic?

Timing and place – Is there an easy flow of information back and forth? Do nonverbal responses come too quickly or too slowly?

Sounds – Do you hear sounds that indicate caring or concern?

As you continue to pay attention to the nonverbal cues and signals you send and receive, your ability to communicate will improve.

Related articles

Effective Communication: Improving Communication Skills in Your Work and Personal Relationships

Conflict Resolution Skills: Building the Skills That Can Turn Conflicts into Opportunities

Relationship Help: Advice for Building Caring, Meaningful Relationships that Last

Resources and references

General information about nonverbal communication

About Nonverbal Communications – Overview of the different categories of nonverbal communication, along with a detailed list of signals. (Adam Blatner, M.D.)

Body Language: Understanding Nonverbal Communication – Guide to body language and nonverbal communication, particularly as it applies to the workplace. (MindTools)

Take Control of Your Nonverbal Communication – Video explaining how to notice and use body language. (Harvard Business Review)

Using Body Language – Learn about various nonverbal message clusters that indicate things such as aggression, attention, boredom, defensiveness, and attraction. (Changing Minds)

The Importance of Nonverbal Communication (PDF) – Piece by Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D. about the communication process and how managers can make constructive and effective feedback to workers. (Northeastern University)

Uses of Nonverbal Communication – Covers a variety of nonverbal communication methods, including signals used to control conversation and convey personality and status. (Changing Minds)

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., and Greg Boose. Last updated: October 2017.