Have you ever been in a conversation that left you feeling confused? Like you missed something important but couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was? Did you wonder what went wrong or how the conversation went off course? I have been there!
Since we live in a fast-paced world, it is easy for communications to get lost in translation. Yet, skilled communicators seem to navigate through interactions with ease.
This post taps into their superpower—offering tips to help you master the art of nonverbal communication.
Why is understanding nonverbal communication important?
Since much of our body language emanates from the subconscious level, it relays messages more accurately than our words. Over 65% of our feelings and attitudes are interpreted through nonverbal behavior rather than words alone.
If we are not paying attention, we will miss much of what is being communicated and possibly create confusion when we are communicating with others.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication consists of factors beyond words such as facial expressions, eye contact, hand and arm gestures, posture, body movements, attire, and personal space.
How to interpret other’s nonverbal communication.
Observing other’s behavioral cues can offer insight into what is going on underneath the surface and can serve to illuminate the deeper meaning behind each interaction.
Raised eyebrows can either convey the person is emphasizing a point or is surprised. Furrowed eyebrows can express confusion.
The mouth and jaw also send emotional messages such as happiness with a smile or a clenched jaw expressing tension, hostility, or anger.
Pursing lips or twisting them to the side can signal we are thinking or that we are holding back a dissenting opinion or angry response. Even though others will not hear our comments, they still will pick up our feeling of displeasure.
Often, our eyes will speak what our mouths are unwilling to say. When someone maintains good eye contact, it demonstrates respect and interest in what people have to say as well as conveying confidence. Also, eyes show concern or create feelings of closeness.
When eyes pull away from our gaze, they express insecurity, dishonesty, or thoughtful recollection. Direct stares, in combination with other aggressive nonverbal cues, signal dominance, hostility, or disdain for another.
Hand and arm gestures
A palm held slightly up and outward conveys openness, honesty, and trustworthiness, whereas palm-down gestures are generally seen as dominant or sometimes aggressive. Concealed hands can be suspicious, convey distrust, or insecurity. Pointing can come across as aggressive and rude. Steepling fingertips communicates confidence. Arms crossed in front of the chest can signal inflexibility, disinterest, or defensiveness while self-hugs, face-rubbing, and knuckle-cracking can convey discomfort.
A handshake communicates our level of comfort and confidence. A palm-down handshake communicates dominance while a palm-up communicates submissiveness.
A vertical handshake communicates equality.
The firmness of the grip communicates as well with a firm grip implying confidence and a limp handshake indicating lack thereof. A bone-crusher handshake communicates dominance.
Poor posture can be interpreted as a lack of confidence, interest, or preparedness. It can also communicate fatigue or depression. An erect posture communicates confidence, a positive attitude, attentiveness, and independence. People of higher status usually take a more relaxed posture with less symmetry while lower-status people sit more at attention with a more symmetrical posture, such as folding of hands on lap or at their side.
Observing body movements gives us clues into the feelings of others. A twitching foot or the tapping of fingers or small objects can convey nervousness. Legs tend to move around a lot more than normal when we are nervous, stressed or being deceptive. Leg crossing may convey defensiveness or a closed mindset. Leaning forward conveys interest and leaning back conveys disinterest and defensiveness. Nodding of the head when listening conveys interest and understanding.
What we wear is a powerful nonverbal communication tool that can leave an impression with others in the first few seconds of meeting us. Attire includes clothing as well as accessories. It communicates many messages such as financial status, level of professionalism, authority, and confidence as well as the person’s personality, interests, and background. Sometimes people can judge someone by their attire and not really listen to what is being said.
Sensitivity to other’s personal space is vital if we want to send the right signals. Each person’s comfort zone can vary slightly (usually between 18 inches and 4 feet) and will depend on their relationship with each person they meet. Standing too close will be seen as too aggressive. If we move closer to someone and they back away, we are probably encroaching on their personal space and need to pull back a bit.
How to be more mindful of our own nonverbal communication.
We all develop a first impression of someone within the first seven seconds of meeting them. This impression often has a lasting impact. By mastering our nonverbal communication, we can give people a more positive mental impression of us.
Communicating through listening
When we listen, we are still communicating through our eyes, facial expressions, posture, hand gestures, body movements, and personal space. It is important to be mindful of our thoughts and what we intend to convey through our nonverbal cues.
Recently, when I listened to one of my employees in our one-on-one meetings, I found myself tilting my head to the right and leaning the side of my face on my fist. I caught myself and thought this behavior may be communicating to her that I was bored, yet I just felt relaxed. To self-correct, I nonchalantly relaxed my arm down to my side and brought my head upright to ensure she knew I was intently listening. I find myself doing these types of self-corrections more often now after researching this topic!
To listen openly and provide a safe space for someone to share, ensure facial expressions, eye contact, attentiveness remain neutral when other’s negative opinions are expressed.
Nonverbal cues such as nods, smiles, looks of understanding express that the other person is being heard.
Communicating with others
We convey an openness to learning with our bodies long before we say a word from our mouths. When we are communicating with someone, it is important to convey that we are interested in the other person on a human level by using the following behavioral cues:
Use eye contact to create an emotional connection. Dr. Helen Riess and Liz Neporent, authors of The Empathy Effect, suggest gazing long enough to make note of the person’s eye color. Other research suggests building rapport by meet a person’s gaze up to 70% of the time. It also validates the other person’s existence as it communicates “I see you”. Any more eye contact than this can be too intense. Any less, we risk conveying that we are not interested in others or their conversation.
Lean towards the other person.
Sit at eye level.
Give supportive cues such as head-nods.
Use mirroring to express congruence with the other person when appropriate.
Keep arms unfolded and relaxed.
Be aware of body positioning, both yours and theirs, to communicate that you not only care about them, but you desire to understand the significance of what they are sharing. To demonstrate care and understanding, tilt the head just a little to one side or other. We can shift the tilt from left to right at different points in the conversation.
During social settings, ensure your face, body, and feet are all facing towards the other person to express interest. Be cognizant of the direction of your feet throughout the conversation since they tend to migrate towards where you want to go next.
Whether we are at the workplace, in a social setting, traveling, or at home, being able to effectively navigate through a conversation can help us to have more successful outcomes and develop more meaningful relationships as we navigate through life.
Let’s have a discussion!
What is one key takeaway you can apply to further develop your nonverbal communication skills?
What tips have helped you to become more self-aware of your nonverbal communication?
Featured Image By Mimi Thian
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on sharonkrueger.com.