Whether you are aware or not, 93% of our communication occurs nonverbally. In fact, individuals express nonverbal signals to communicate how they feel or what they think in a particular situation. Therefore, understanding nonverbal communication would significantly impact interacting with colleagues, teammates, clients, or friends, either at work or in any other context, in person or remotely. For example, learning to communicate through gestures, postures, body movements, or voice tone can be advantageous when dealing with supervisors, competitors, or coworkers. Indeed, nonverbal communication can enhance the level of verbal communication by making it more effective.
In this article, I explain what nonverbal communication is by showing a few examples. In particular, I will also share insights about which nonverbal message you should avoid, pay attention to, or promote to leave the right impression and establish a trustworthy collaboration in the workplace.
What is nonverbal communication?
Contrary to common beliefs, communication is a complex process that can occur even without the usage of spoken words. Indeed, facial expressions, gestures, certain body or hand movements, and postures that occur during a conversation are part of the so-called “nonverbal communication. Therefore, nonverbal communication is the process of delivering meanings without relying on spoken or written words. While spoken words are an explicit, direct, and pragmatic form of communication (i.e., used to communicate external facts), nonverbal communication acts on a higher level to augment and maintain interpersonal relationships (i.e., used to communicate emotions, and it reflects personalities). In addition, nonverbal communication can be expressed in the form of gestures and signals to enrich verbal communication while making communication more effective and efficient (e.g., when giving directions). Furthermore, nonverbal communication establishes a distance between the two speakers and it regulates the flow of the discussion (e.g., by using body language signals it is possible to show when someone finishes talking and the other would like to speak).
Types of nonverbal communication
So, if nonverbal communication is so essential to make the conversation more effective, what are the cues that we should pay attention to?
Body language or kinesics
We can lie with words but not with our bodies. Indeed, body language plays a central role in our communication because it mirrors our true feelings (e.g., whether we are un/comfortable). Therefore two significant aspects should be considered concerning body language:
- Posture: refers to the way you sit or stand. During a conversation, it is suggestible to acquire an open posture by turning your body and face toward the person you are interacting with. In addition, leaning forward and toward that person indicates your interest in the conversation and that you are actively listening to that person.
- The gestures: although the usage of gestures can be seen more frequently in some cultures than others (e.g., Italians versus Germans!), even simple gestures (e.g., nodding the head, opening the palms) would be perceived as signs of openness by the person we are talking to. Hence, moving the hands while speaking (without overdoing it) would positively activate the conversation. This can even be reinforced if eye contact is maintained during the conversation.
- The physical (personal) appearance: it plays a central role when communicating with others. Appearance includes clothing, ornaments, cosmetics, hairstyle, etc. Physical/personal appearance is a clear visual signal toward that person regarding his/her interests, age, personality, style, attitude, sex, etc. Therefore, the way we appear in public is the expression of who we are and what we want to communicate.
Moreover, besides positive body language signals, there are also negative body language signs that should be avoided because they would generate a negative impression and “block” the flow of the conversation. Indeed, playing with a pen during a business negotiation, and watching your clock continuously are perceived as a lack of interest and cooperation leading to failing our goal. Hence, be careful with the following body language (that should be avoided):
- clenched fists
- folded arms
- rolling eyes
- shrugs and shuffles
- imitation of the other person's actions
- finger pointing.
Tips & Advice: a good way to positively interact with your interlocutor is to mimic his/her body language. This would be positively perceived by our person who would be much more connected with us. Therefore, learn to watch what the other person is doing and how he/she is conducting the conversation. Anything that seems positive is worth copying. Differently, anything that repels you while engaging in a discussion should be highly avoided!
Another important nonverbal cue to consider is maintaining eye contact during a conversation. Indeed, looking people in the eye is perceived by them as you are really paying attention and actively listening to them. In addition, eye contact is meaning of confidence, interest, and sincerity; aspects that are extremely relevant when dealing with any business situation (and workplace).
On the contrary, not looking someone in the eye while talking (or listening to them) would be perceived as a lack of interest, nervousness, and a bit of arrogance leading to a negative impression.
Tips & Advice: maintaining eye contact is particularly true and worthwhile during business negotiations or while talking to your employer/client/partner/colleague. Eye contact would make you be perceived as confident, trustworthy, and engaged in the topic under discussion. However, maintaining eye contact doesn’t mean you should stare at them!
What makes a conversation emotionally engaging are facial expressions. Indeed, our faces are very expressive (even if we do not notice it!), and most of the time, our emotions will appear on our faces before even saying a thing. Therefore, facial expressions would be essential in any situation, particularly in the workplace and in a business conversation.
A very simple, natural, positive, and crucial facial expression is our smile. Indeed, while we smile, the person we are talking to would perceive this expression and the context of the conversation positively leading to relaxation. Besides, keeping eye contact and a body leaning forward that person would certainly make the conversation a success. However, although smiling is a very positive cue, there are other facial expressions that should be avoided because they are perceived as negative. These are:
- frowning, scowling
Tips & Advice: the best dress you can wear in any situation is your smile. It costs you nothing but it will help you to succeed in any conversation (e.g., business negotiation) while giving others a positive impression of yourself.
Other nonverbal communication cues
Lastly, there are also other cues that should be considered when engaging in a conversation such as:
- Touch: it is highly communicative and the first nonverbal way of communication we get in life. By touching someone we share emotions and we can connect with that person. However, touch is typically regulated by culture, social rules, and individual preferences.
- Proteomics/distance: it refers to the way we interact with the space and the environment around us. Thus, the space and distance we keep show powerful messages. It may also refer to the importance that a person has in a particular situation (e.g., our office, its location, its features indicate the position that a person has in the company. For example the employer has a larger office than the employee). Besides, distance is an indicator of intimacy and cultural and individual acceptance.
- Chronemics/time language: in some countries and cultures, “time” is an important message carried out in nonverbal communication. Indeed, it refers to the usage of time in any situation (e.g., the way someone invests his/her time is a clear message of his/her intentions, priorities, and interests).
- Communication through actions: it refers to the actions we take regularly (e.g., habits) and these actions reflect important messages that are indeed communicated non-verbally. For instance, if the employer comes to the office every day at the same time it indicates that he/she is very punctual and that is serious about his/her responsibilities.
- Paralanguage: Similar to language, paralanguage refers to the voice intonation regarding what we are about to say. Therefore, tone, volume, quality, etc. are clear communication tools to emphasize a verbal message.
The benefit of using nonverbal communication in the workplace
When it comes to business, effective and clear communication is key to the success of a company. Indeed, professionals frequently conduct calls via phone, chat, and other technologies with clients, colleagues, and partners. However, although verbal communication looks like the only channel of communication, a closer look at nonverbal communication should be given due to its importance in any conversation. Indeed, it has been proven that 70 to 93% of all communication is nonverbal, while words account for only 7%. Moreover, according to Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, the tone of voice represents 38% of communication, while body language and facial expressions the 55%. Therefore, even by using face-to-face video conferencing technologies, it is important to maintain nonverbal signals to engage the audience.
Verbal communication is a complex process that is enriched by several nonverbal expressions that make the process even more “sophisticated.” Indeed, we have seen how gestures, postures, eye contact, touch, physical appearance, and other body movements are a clear form of communication and engagement. Thus, being mindful of these signals would guarantee better interaction with people, particularly in the workplace (e.g., with colleagues, clients, competitors, etc.).
Why does nonverbal communication matter in the workplace?
First, nonverbal communication effectively leads others (e.g., employees and team members). Indeed, managers should be aware of this potential when leading and communicating with teams. Accordingly, also team members should be aware when using nonverbal cues to interact with colleagues, clients, and competitors. This fact would highly influence the outcome of potential partnerships and the business itself.
Secondly, what has been said can be confirmed or not by nonverbal communication. Thus, verbal and nonverbal communication should match to be more effective while avoiding contradictions (which would lead to wrong perceptions). Moreover, the usage of nonverbal communication occurs daily and in any type of business conversation. For instance, different nonverbal communication would take place based on the type of meeting. In a typical conversation between team members, individuals would sit side by side, with a more relaxed approach. Differently, in the presence of competitors, individuals would sit facing one another. Depending on these two scenarios, crossing legs would mean relaxation (first example) or resistance (second example). Likewise, maintaining eye contact would be perceived as interest, although employers would keep their eye contact longer than employees (who perceive themselves as less in power). Touches are also powerful nonverbal cues, frequently used in the workplace. For example, the strength of a handshake can be a symbol of confidence, but also tapping on someone’s shoulder can be perceived as encouragement or an invasion of personal space (e.g., depending on the culture and social habits).
Learning to use nonverbal communication has the advantage of strengthening interactions, making them more effective. This is true for both employers and employees. Indeed, nonverbal communication may express confidence, gratitude, concern, enthusiasm, passion, dedication, and professionalism due to the usage of active listening, eye contact, gestures, postures, or physical appearance, as mentioned by Thunder Tech and it should be considered as one of the strongest types of communication.
Workplace and situational examples
The best way to learn and spot nonverbal communication in a typical workplace situation is by giving a few examples.
Maintain eye contact while engaging in conversations: as previously described, maintaining eye contact during a conversation is a sign of interest and attention toward people. This holds true face-to-face or on video chats. Eye contact strengthens the connection between individuals, which is extremely important at work with teammates.
Advice: while you are engaging in a conversation, maintain eye contact to show you are actively listening and that you are interested in that discussion/project.
Positive voice tone: although speaking belongs to verbal communication, the tone of voice is an indicator of our feelings, mood, and interests regarding that particular conversation. Whether in a video call or conference, mind the tone of your voice because it is directly proportional to the message you aim to deliver, and it would influence the whole conversation and atmosphere.
Advice: you may want to use a positive and energetic tone of voice to express enthusiasm regarding a new proposal/project while giving the perception you are very passionate about your job and assigned role.
Care about your personal appearance: we discussed how the way you look mirrors your personality, interests, habits, attitude, etc. Besides, also the way you keep your workspace reflects something about you and your attitude at work. Therefore, keeping a tidy workstation would give the perception of self-confidence, a structured and organized approach to work, and so a positive impression on other co-workers.
Advice: if your goal is to get promoted, dress up in a way that reflects your dream job. Therefore, when meeting your supervisor you could wear a business suit/dress indicating the position you aim to achieve. This would be perceived that you are professional and that you are committed to getting that position.
Keep an appropriate posture: sitting composed or sprawled, or standing up straight are nonverbal signals that would show how engaged you are in that situation/conversation. Therefore, to show your confidence (e.g., in a job interview) sitting composed or standing up straight is suggested to give a positive and confident appearance.
Advice: when delivering a presentation regarding a novel project/idea to your team, you can sit or stand with your shoulders back to convey your confidence. This would make your message more effective.
Mind your touch: although touching others is regulated by social norms (e.g., Covid-19) and cultural beliefs, shaking hands or touching shoulders can be a good nonverbal tool to connect with people. However, be mindful and aware of that country's social/cultural rules.
Advice: in the USA shaking hand firmly is a sign of confidence, but in other cultures can be perceived as a sign of arrogance and aggression. Moreover, a slight tap on the shoulders can be a sign of encouragement and support.
Facial expressions: as previously discussed, facial expressions show your feelings and thoughts, independently of whether you are having a face-to-face in-person conversation or video call. Smiling, nodding, and eyebrows denote the “tone” of the conversation and may influence it positively or negatively.
Advice: your teammate is telling you about their new project and is very excited about it. Smile and keep eye contact while listening. This would show them you are interested and positively participating in their joy and enthusiasm.
(Personal) space: although distance and space are regulated by social norms and cultural usages, getting closer to someone while having a conversation would show interest and intimacy (particularly in one-to-one conversations). Nevertheless, take the distance and space you need to create and feel a comfortable environment around you.
Advice: before initiating a conversation, take the sit closest to your person (e.g., a coworker) to hear them better and pay more attention to their discussion.
Gestures: any culture uses hand gestures differently, and similar gestures may have different meanings. Nevertheless, gestures are a very effective form of nonverbal communication, expressing what you are feeling, appreciation, concern, and friendliness while engaging the person in your context and conversation.
Advice: “thumbs up” (meaning “you are doing fine”) to encourage a teammate that is delivering a presentation. He/she would feel more confident, encouraged, and supported regarding his presentation and project.
Body language: it is a clear sign of nonverbal communication that clearly expresses how we feel in a particular conversation and how engaged we are. Indeed, keeping arms relaxed is an indicator of openness and interest while listening. On the contrary, crossing arms is perceived as closeness and disinterest. Moreover, sitting while leaning forward is also a sign of politeness and attention.
Advice: sit upright by keeping your arms on the table while listening to your co-worker giving a presentation. This would show interest, engagement, and focus on that presentation.
Most of the time, during a presentation, chatting with co-workers, walking in the hallway, or talking to your supervisor, we communicate without even saying a word. Indeed, nonverbal communication represents 93% of communication made through gestures, postures, space, appearance, eye contact, touch, etc., influencing and affecting any interaction.
However, although nonverbal communication may influence the way people perceive us while engaging in a conversation, on the other hand, it may affect and influence how people perform (e.g., nonverbal communication may influence the action of the other speaker). Indeed, according to the career and small business website Chron, if a manager communicates through positive nonverbal signals to employees, it may enhance productivity, effectiveness, and a positive atmosphere in the workplace. Furthermore, according to Forbes, a few nonverbal cues were recognized to show confidence in the workplace. Among them are:
- Persistent eye contact to establish a nonverbal connection
- Appropriate facial expressions to show positive interest
- Firm and confident handshake
- Proposeful gestures to add meaning to spoken words
- Commanding postures and dynamic presence when leading teams (meaning of authority, security, confidence).
Lastly, minding the “tempo” of a conversation would help when dealing with gaps in the conversation (e.g., between employee and employer), as reported by the Society of Human Resource Management. To properly pace conversation in the workplace, a few tips were given, such as:
- Being patient with people who need longer gaps to think in silence
- Be mindful of how body language, voice tone, gestures, postures, etc. would influence the conversation
- Recognize that your attitude at work (e.g., the way you take responsibilities) would influence your teamwork, collaboration, and skills
- Don’t judge people if you feel that someone is taking over the conversation
- Observe how people behave and communicate (e.g., mirror style) to positively influence the conversation and connection.
Therefore, employers and employees should be trained to recognize and properly use nonverbal communication with the goal of enhancing interactions and performances in the workplace.
To know more about ten nonverbal cues that convey confidence at work, read here.
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