The power of nonverbal communication and body
Nonverbal communication, or body language, is a vital form of
communication. When we interact with others, we continuously give
and receive countless 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
The way you listen, look, move, and react tell the other person
whether or not you care and how well you’re listening. The nonverbal
signals you send either produce a sense of interest, trust, and
desire for connection—or they generate disinterest, distrust, and
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 and often do
- 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
Nonverbal communication and body language
It takes more than words to create fulfilling, strong
relationships. Nonverbal communication has a huge impact on the
quality of our relationships. Nonverbal communication skills improve
relationships by helping you:
- Accurately read other people, including the emotions they’re
feeling and the unspoken messages they’re sending.
- Create trust and transparency in relationships by sending
nonverbal signals that match up with your words.
- Respond with nonverbal cues that show others that you
understand, notice, and care.
Unfortunately, many people send confusing or negative nonverbal
signals without even knowing it. When this happens, both connection
and trust are lost in our relationships.
Consider the case of Arlene:
Arlene is attractive and has no problem meeting eligible men —
it’s keeping them that is the problem! Arlene is funny and a good
conversationalist, but even though she laughs and smiles constantly,
she radiates tension. Arlene’s shoulders and eyebrows are noticeably
raised, her voice is shrill and her body stiff to touch. Being
around Arlene makes many people feel uncomfortable. Arlene has a lot
going for her that is undercut by the discomfort she evokes in
Arlene is articulate, attractive, and well-intentioned, but she
struggles to connect with others because she isn’t aware of the
nonverbal messages she’s communicating. But she can break this
pattern if she learns to pay attention to the wordless signals she
sends and receives:
Arlene notices that her date is tapping his fingers and that she
has been swinging her leg and foot. He looks bored, and she feels
tense all over. Taking a long, deep breath and a swallow of wine,
she feels her shoulders drop and her jaw relax. Arlene leans across
the table and breaks into a warm smile. Her date smiles back, and
their eyes meet and hold. She has also used her new observational
skills at work and is now much more comfortable interacting with
others in that setting.
Types of nonverbal communication and body
There are many different types of nonverbal communication.
Together, the following nonverbal signals and cues communicate your
interest and investment in others.
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 up, 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 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
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
We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the
messages given by the following: a firm handshake, a timid tap on
the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring pat on the back, a
patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on your arm.
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,
aggression, dominance, or affection.
We communicate with our voices, even when we are not using words.
Nonverbal speech sounds such as tone, pitch, volume, inflection,
rhythm, and rate are important communication elements. When we
speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to
our words. These nonverbal speech sounds provide subtle but powerful
clues into our true feelings and what we really mean. Think about
how tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger,
affection, or confidence.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
- Intensity. A reflection of the amount of
energy you project is considered your intensity. Again, this has
as much to do with what feels good to the other person as what you
- Timing and pace. Your ability to be a good
listener and communicate interest and involvement is impacted by
timing and pace.
- Sounds that convey understanding. Sounds such
as “ahhh, ummm, ohhh,” uttered with congruent eye and facial
gestures, communicate understanding and emotional connection. More
than words, these sounds are the language of interest,
understanding and compassion.
Using body language and nonverbal
Nonverbal communication is a rapidly flowing back-and-forth
process. Successful nonverbal communication depends on
emotional self-awareness and an understanding of the cues you’re
sending, along with the ability to accurately pick up on the cues
others are sending you. This requires your full concentration and
attention. If you are planning what you’re going to say next,
daydreaming, or thinking about something else, you are almost
certain to miss nonverbal cues and other subtleties in the
conversation. You need to stay focused on the moment-to-moment
experience in order to fully understand what’s going on.
Tips for successful nonverbal communication:
- Take a time out if you’re feeling overwhelmed by
stress. Stress compromises your ability to communicate.
When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other
people, send off confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and
lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior. 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.
- Pay attention to inconsistencies. Nonverbal
communication should reinforce what is being said. If you get the
feeling that someone isn’t being honest or that something is
“off,” you may be picking up on a mismatch between verbal and
nonverbal cues. 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
sending and receiving, from eye contact to tone of voice and body
language. Are your nonverbal cues consistent—or inconsistent—with
what you are trying to communicate?
Improving your nonverbal communication
Before you can improve your nonverbal communication skills, you
need to figure out what you’re doing right and where there is room
for improvement. The most effective method is to observe yourself in
- Video camera – Videotape a conversation
between you and a partner. Set the camera to record both of you at
the same time, so you can observe the nonverbal back-and-forth.
When you watch the recording, focus on any discrepancies between
your verbal and nonverbal communication.
- Digital camera – Ask someone to take a series
of photos of you while you’re talking to someone else. As you look
through the photos, focus on you and the other person’s body
language, facial expressions, and gestures.
- Audio recorder – Record a conversation
between you and a friend or family member. As you listen to the
recording afterwards, concentrate on the way things are said,
rather than the words. Pay attention to tone, timing, pace, and
As you watch or listen to the recordings, ask yourself the
nonverbal communication skills |
Is this source of connection missing, too intense, or just
right in yourself or in the person you are looking
What is your face showing? Is it masklike and unexpressive,
or emotionally present and filled with interest? What do you
see as you look into the faces of others?
Tone of voice
Does your voice project warmth, confidence, and delight, or
is it strained and blocked? What do you hear as you listen to
Posture and gesture
Does your body look still and immobile, or relaxed? Sensing
the degree of tension in your shoulders and jaw answers this
question. What do you observe about the degree of tension or
relaxation in the body of the person you are speaking
Remember, what feels good is relative. How do you like to
be touched? Who do you like to have touching you? Is the
difference between what you like and what the other person
likes obvious to you?
Do you or the person you are communicating with seem flat,
cool, and disinterested, or over-the-top and melodramatic?
Again, this has as much to do with what feels good to the
other person as it does with what you personally
Timing and pace
What happens when you or someone you care about makes an
important statement? Does a response—not necessarily
verbal—come too quickly or too slowly? Is there an easy flow
of information back and forth?
Do you use sounds to indicate that you are attending to the
other person? Do you pick up on sounds from others that
indicate their caring or concern for you?
Source: The Language of
Emotional Intelligence, by Jeanne Segal,
The point of this exercise is to develop your nonverbal
awareness. As you continue to pay attention to the nonverbal
cues and signals you send and receive, your ability to communicate
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Related links for nonverbal communication
General information about nonverbal
The Importance of Effective Communication,
Describes the communication process, barriers to effective
communication and the importance of nonverbal communication (Edward
G. Wertheim, Ph.D)
Improving nonverbal communication skills
Body Language – Guide to body language and
nonverbal communication, particularly as it applies to the