According to Indeed data, communication skills consistently ranked among the top skills most commonly listed in new job postings by employers in 2020. And this makes total sense! Only with strong communication skills we can build personal and professional relationships.
Communication can either be verbal or nonverbal. While most of us are aware of verbal communication and use it on a regular basis, only a small percentage of what we communicate during conversations with family, friends, colleagues and even strangers is actually verbal. Research shows that the vast majority of our communication is actually nonverbal. Surprised? Well, no wonder, nonverbal communication like body movements and posture, facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures and tone of voice is often not intentional and we are thus often unaware of our participation in it. And whether you are aware of it or not, all of your nonverbal behaviors send strong messages – they can put people at ease, build trust, and draw others towards you, or they can offend, confuse, and undermine what you’re trying to convey. 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.
These messages don’t stop when you stop speaking either. Even when you’re silent, you’re still communicating non-verbally.
Read on if you want to find out how you can improve your ability to read nonverbal cues and strengthen your relationships - personal and professional - along the way.
Types of nonverbal communication
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📍 Facial expressions. Consider how much information can be conveyed with a smile or a frown. The look on a person's face is often the first thing we see, even before we hear what they have to say. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, contempt, and disgust are the same across cultures.
Source: Universal Emotions by Paul Ekman
📍 Body movement 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.
📍 Gestures. Deliberate movements and signals are an important way to communicate meaning without words. 2 Common gestures include waving, pointing, and using fingers to indicate numeric amounts. The meaning of other gestures can be very different across cultures so it’s important to be careful of how you use gestures to avoid misinterpretation.
📍 Eye contact. Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s interest and response. When people encounter people or things that they like for example, the rate of blinking increases and pupils dilate.
📍 Touch. We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the very different messages given by a weak handshake, a warm bear hug, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on the arm, for example.
📍 Personal 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 (also called Para-linguistics). It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When you speak, other people “read” your voice in addition to listening to your 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 your tone of voice can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.
How to improve nonverbal communication
📍 Being fully present: nonverbal communication happens very fast so it requires your full focus to not miss any nonverbal cues.
📍 Learn to manage stress in the moment: Stress compromises your ability to communicate. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other people and send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals. So whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, take a time out and take a moment to calm down before you jump back into the conversation.
📍 Develop your emotional awareness: In order to send accurate nonverbal cues, you need to be aware of your own 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.
The important thing to remember when looking at such nonverbal behaviors is to consider these nonverbal signals in relation to verbal communication, other nonverbal signals, and the situation and context you are in. So keep those five key principles in mind when practicing your skills:
Culture, age, gender and geographic location are critical. Gestures may mean very different things in different regions. Cultural and family norms also affect the way we react to nonverbal cues.
Put things into context. If someone has their arms crossed it may just mean they are chilly. Before jumping to conclusions, put the conversation and the individual into the context of the topic, timing and other external influences.
Look for a combination of signals. It is extremely difficult for our entire body to lie. People are capable of hiding their true intentions, but the real meaning often leaks through multiple channels.
Incongruence can mean many things. When words and nonverbal cues don’t align, our natural instincts kick in. Psychological discomfort may indicate that you are the recipient of untruths, but that uneasy feeling may mean other things, as well. Refining one’s ability to become more attuned to nonverbal cues can increase one’s ability to be more in tune with your own instincts.
Trust your intuition. Intuition is the unconscious processing of information (e.g. subtle nonverbal signals) manifested as physical feelings. Authenticity is key since people easily pick up on unauthentic and insincere communication. The more one’s awareness of the spoken and the unspoken, the more one’s own instincts are heightened.
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.