Nonverbal Communication – What We Convey but Don’t Say

We humans are very social beings. We are constantly communicating and expressing ourselves, whether it’s verbally, non-verbally, in writing, through social media, or even through the use of imagery and art. Our communication skills are also essential in shaping and maintaining our relationships. However, despite our many efforts to communicate clearly and effectively, we often miss the mark. Although this can sometimes be caused by the various communication barriers we encounter, much of it can be attributed to our non-verbal communication; all of the things that we don’t say but are still expressed through our thoughts and feelings.

When words fail

One of the most quoted (and often misquoted) studies around non-verbal communication is from Albert Mehrabian, which he first shared back in 1967. He studied the importance of verbal and non-verbal communication and concluded that in terms of likability, only 7% of a message actually depends on the words used. Of the remaining 93%, 55% is dependent on body language, and 38% on tone of voice. When we take a minute to think about this, it makes a lot of sense. Our verbal and non-verbal elements support one another and work congruently. What someone says can be more powerful and convincing because of their gestures and intonation. On the flip side of that, a message will be more unconvincing when there is no congruence and the receiver is then left confused or put on the wrong track. We unconsciously focus more on the non-verbal elements that always dominate. In other words, the non-verbal aspects of our communication can either reinforce or completely contradict a spoken message entirely.

Delving deeper

Why this particular study is so often misrepresented is because it’s been generalized to apply to all areas of communication, but in terms of Mehrabian’s findings, this only applies when it comes to feelings and attitudes, not every type of communication we exchange. I think that what we can conclude is that since we are emotional beings and make many decisions based on feelings and emotions, non-verbal communication is extremely important; it’s something we need to understand and use effectively. Think of someone saying “I’m so sorry” in a sincere manner, with good eye contact, a pleasant facial expression, and tone. Now imagine that person saying those same words, but this time sarcastically, adding in an eye-roll, shrugged shoulders, and a high-pitched voice. The non-verbal cues can negate the words spoken, or even reverse their meaning. That’s how powerful our non-verbal communication skills are.

It only takes a second to make a first impression

Many non-verbal expressions are more-or-less automatic; we just do them naturally, and although we may not always notice we do them, others certainly do. These non-verbal cues include our general body language, mannerisms, facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it), and hand gestures, as well as our posture, tone or pitch of voice, and proximity to others. The way we dress, walk, or even sit all play a part in how we are perceived by others, even before we’ve spoken. When we think about making a good first impression, it’s important to think about our non-verbal cues and what we are “telling” people about ourselves. It’s also important to remember that our first impressions of others can be very wrong, and that it takes time to really get to know someone.

How to improve non-verbal communication

Getting better at reading non-verbal cues in others is not only a very achievable goal, it’s also kind of fun. It’s about finding those clues which can de-mystify a conversation or message. Anytime we are unsure about what the words mean, we should pay more attention to the non-verbal signals to uncover more meaning. This way we can better sense someone’s emotions, moods or opinions, which is not only a key aspect of emotional intelligence, but it also improves our communication in general. Improved communication naturally enhances relationships; it’s all connected. Here are a few helpful tips to start with:

  • Watch people’s body language, facial expressions and intonations and look for subtle cues.
  • Be conscious of your own physicality and feelings – which can enhance non-verbal communication.
  • Be an effective, active listener – beyond just hearing the words spoken. Allow others to talk and take the time to understand and reflect on what they are saying.
  • Be aware that non-verbal signals or gestures can differ between cultures. For example, a “thumbs up” for many of us means “Ok” or “Good job”, but in some cultures, it can mean number 1, number 5, or worse…a very negative insult.
  • Look up body language and non-verbal communication skills and spend some time learning more about it. Ask others to give you input on your own non-verbal skills so you can make modifications if needed.

As a speaker, paying attention to non-verbal cues has been a critical skill to develop. Being able to read my audience and make adjustments based on the non-verbal feedback I receive is important. If I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have the same connection and engagement with my audience that I enjoy. As we’ve learned throughout this series on Communication, we recognize just how critical it is in shaping so many aspects of our life. We humans are complicated, but so worth the effort!

Non-verbal communication is an elaborate secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all. – Edward Sapir