The importance of non-verbal communication

What would you think if you were attending a pitch presentation, and the presenter kept twiddling their pen and did not look you in the eye? Or if you were giving a performance review, and your employee was speaking loudly and using aggressive gestures?

What you say is important. But what you’re not saying is just as important. Your ability to communicate non-verbally speaks volumes – and it can sometimes contradict your words.

By reading other people’s non-verbal language and improving your own, you develop your emotional and social intelligence (remember those from our last article?). And in looking for ways to improve your own non-verbal language, you can improve the quality of your interactions – by being more attentive, more present, and more engaged.

So, what is non-verbal communication?

Non-verbal communication covers all communication other than the words that you speak. These physical cues convey how you’re truly feeling – whether that’s in response to your immediate circumstance (e.g. the conversation you’re having with your colleague) or in response to external factors that don’t affect your current conversation (e.g. thinking about the delicious eggplant parmesan pasta you’re going to cook tonight). Subconsciously, these cues can contradict what you’re saying – or you can harness them to complement your words.

Body language cues can be conveyed through:

  • Posture
  • Facial expressions
  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Head movement
  • Touch

Other non-verbal cues are communicated through:

  • Appearance
  • Vocal quality
  • Physiological changes

Why does it matter?

Non-verbal communication is imperative in the workplace. We’re often working with people that we wouldn’t normally associate with, so being able to convey the right kind of non-verbal cues in the workplace can help to alleviate conflict and misinterpretations.

Non-verbal communication can be conscious or subconscious movement, and gives unsaid clues as to your true intention. People will trust what you do, more than what you say, and your movements can demonstrate a whole range of things – whether you approve or disapprove, whether you’re engaged, your interest, your comfort level, your connection level and your authenticity. Importantly, it can also help to convey your specific meaning, to avoid misinterpretation and miscommunication.

Non verbal communication the people practice

Body language

Body language is the most well-known form of non-verbal communication, and can include posture, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, head movement, and touch.

Consider the following when interacting with others:

  • Pay attention to how you’re sitting or standing during a conversation. Consider how it appears to the other person if you’re standing with your body facing away from them? If you’re sitting with your shoulders slumped? Are you standing, towering over a seated person? Are you trying to hide behind furniture? Keep your body open, rather than closed with your arms folded or in your pockets.
  • Be mindful of gestures. Demonstrate your interest through positive non-verbal cues – such as nodding your head or opening your palms. On the flip side, try to avoid being overly animated with your hands, as you might appear uncontrolled or aggressive.
  • Focal attention should be on the person that you’re speaking to – or if you’re in a group or presentation, making eye contact to connect with the others in the room
  • Your facial expressions are the most easily recognisable form of body language. Be aware of smiling, rather than frowning; having open eyes, rather than narrowed; speaking with a relaxed mouth, rather than a tense jaw.
  • Positive head movements can demonstrate your agreeance (such as nodding), and show your interest if your head is tilted slightly in the direction of the speaker. Think about what are you conveying if your head is leaning away from the speaker.
  • Consider how your handshake is interpreted – is it a firm, confident shake? Or an awkward fingertips-only type of interaction? Do you ignore the handshake completely and go for the high five?

It’s also important to be mindful when interacting with other cultures. A Japanese colleague might be more inclined to bow upon meeting others – and therefore their handshake may be less confident. A client from South India may use a head wobble as their primary non-verbal communication. The differences in culture contribute to how people react to different situations – and having social and emotional intelligence will help you to interpret whether the interactions are culturally influenced, or an actual non-verbal demonstration of disinterest. Use your awareness of these factors to help you determine the best way to interact with a person.

Other types of non-verbal communication

Your vocal quality is a clear indicator of non-verbal communication. Do your inflexions match what you’re saying? If you have a rising inflexion at the end of a statement, it could demonstrate uncertainty or infer that you’re asking a question. Consider your volume, time and pace of speech – and always take your audience into consideration. If you’re naturally a fast speaker, perhaps slow down when speaking to your Estonian colleague. Refrain from becoming upset or insulted if someone asks you to repeat something.

Your appearance will also, for better or worse, communicate your personality non-verbally. Attitudes towards business attire are changing as we emerge from lockdown, with society becoming more open and accepting of how various workplaces operate – however, it’s still important to dress appropriately for the occasion.

Proxemics refers to personal space – the physical distance that you maintain between someone else when you’re interacting. This will be dictated by the location and context of your interaction, and can also be influenced by culture. Be mindful if you’re standing too close to someone as you may come across as intimidating.

Physiological changes occur as a subconscious reaction to certain emotions and are not easily controlled. Does your face turn the colour of a tomato when you’re nervous, or do your palms sweat? Are you an uncontrollable blinker when your mind is processing new information? You may not be able to control your reactions, but you can take steps to alleviate the symptoms – have a tissue ready for your sweats, or try looking down when you’re thinking.

Mindful non-verbal communication

With training and practice, we can teach our bodies to respond appropriately to others. This might only be a small adjustment in our non-verbal communication – but rest assured, it can make all the difference to the people who interact with you.

Just like practicing social and emotional intelligence – your positive non-verbal cues will be picked up subconsciously by your colleagues and influence their behaviour. An office in sync ­– where employees learn to understand and be considerate of each other – results in more time to concentrate on generating great outcomes for the business.

Renée x

Get help from the experts

There are so many facets to consider when it comes to non-verbal communication, and it can be daunting to try and do it all yourself... That’s where we can help.

Non-verbal communication is one of our specialities and an area of workplace culture that we feel strongly about. Whether it’s for your own personal development, or to assist your team in improving their communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal!), building an awareness of these factors is crucial (and surprisingly underrated).

Talk to us for your tailored HR solution and inspire positive change and create true connections in your workplace.

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