The Power of Non-Verbal Communications

Experts contend that somewhere between half and up to 80% of all interpersonal communication is non-verbal. There’s no doubt, non-verbal communication is impactful, and can make or break a message. This type of communication goes far beyond simply lacking the spoken word. It’s hand gestures, eye contact, posture, body movement, and the way we tilt or nod our heads. It’s how we present ourselves and how audiences receive us. Non-verbal communication plays an important role in conveying intended – and unintended – messages, so it’s important to take it seriously and get it right.

Students of communications study numerous examples of non-verbal communication, including noteworthy moments in history where our learning in this area grew. Consider the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, the first of its kind to be televised. Up to this point, campaigners gave live speeches, spoke on radio, or appeared – often edited – in print. Most Americans didn’t see candidates outside of a still photo. In the Nixon-Kennedy debate, Nixon’s non-verbal communications did not match the intelligence or intent of his message. His facial expressions were dour. He appeared pale and sweaty from a recent hospitalization. He didn’t have a confident stance or posture. By contrast, Kennedy appeared calm, friendly, and confident. Both verbalized articulate messages to the 74 million people who watched the debate. Kennedy won the election by a narrow margin, and many historians attribute his win to this particular debate.

So how do you become aware of the non-verbal cues that you exhibit? How do you adjust them for optimal effect?

Begin by understanding the non-verbal cues you’re sending … take some “selfies!” Watch yourself in a mirror, videotape yourself, or have a friend or colleague observe you in a mock conversation and offer you feedback. You might be surprised by what you see and learn.

Here are some guiding principles to apply once you have an idea of your natural non-verbals:

  1. Whether seated or standing, note your posture. You should be comfortably erect, angled toward the person with whom you’re speaking in order to convey an approachable, open message. By contrast, hunching or angling away from someone can make you appear angry or unapproachable.
  2. Watch your arms. Arms should be comfortably at your side or on your lap if seated. If you’re at a podium or table, your arms may rest on the object. Do not cross your arms, finger-point, or use erratic arm gestures. Many people naturally make arm gestures when they speak. Be aware of yours, and work to calm the movements. Putting your hands on hips or behind your back can send a message that you’re bored, mad, or disagreeable.
  3. Make eye contact, and keep those eyes steady. People who don’t look others in the eye or shift their eyes appear untrustworthy. You can still review notes, but make sure your eyes make contact with the person to whom you’re speaking for the majority of your conversation. Some people blink rapidly when nervous, or blink too little when concentrating. Both extremes are unnatural and will distract from the message you’re trying to send.
  4. Note your facial expressions. Watch your natural expression at rest, when you hear confusing information, when you’re happy or need to pause and think. Most people’s expressions change for each of these moments. Each of your expressions will convey a message and could alter the direction of the conversation. Do you have a sincere smile, and do you smile at the right moments? I worked with someone who would smile – in a very forced way – at awkward moments, typically when hearing controversial or challenging information. Most people viewed this person as insincere and harsh. I think it might have been a nervous habit. Either way, it didn’t work for her. Here’s another example: Are your eyes wide open with eyebrows in an arch, conveying attentiveness, or are your eyebrows and forehead “scrunched”? Some people make a certain facial expression when they are concentrating or thinking. This processing expression can make others concerned that you’re upset over something they said. Also be aware of habits that can be distracting, like pursing or biting lips.
  5. Calm your fidgeting. Fidgeters are typically viewed as bored, impatient or distracted. Depending on your fidget habit, you can also appear anxious or mad. Examples here include picking or tapping your fingers, playing with fingernails, tapping or spinning pens or another small object, and frequently shifting your legs or seated position.
  6. Watch for a disconnect between your verbal and non-verbals. The most common example of this is saying that you are happy or “fine,” while you’re frowning with shoulders slumped. This is inconsistent and can make other people uncomfortable. Worse, it’s important to note that when incongruent behaviors exist in a conversation, people will naturally focus on the unspoken messages. So moods and emotions will prevail.
  7. If you’re having a challenging conversation, be aware of how others are entering the dialogue. This will help you predict and prepare for what you might see and experience. For instance, are they upset about something? Are you talking with a reporter who has a predisposition about your topic or company? In this situation, you may see that disconnect between verbals and non-verbals, so ask for clarification if needed.
  8. Make adjustments to your non-verbal communications based on cultural differences. Smiling, certain hand gestures, and personal space differ depending on area of the world. While most of our recommendations are universal, it’s important to properly prepare before conversing with the international set.

Finally, be a good listener and observer. Watch for non-verbal communications that could be a cue for you to change course, adjust your communications style or message, or ask questions. This requires some degree of self-awareness and the humility and flexibility to change course. These actions and behaviors will help you have a productive, positive conversation that sends the right messages – both spoken and unspoken –  and helps you achieve what you want.

This post:

The Power of Non-Verbal Communications

Scroll to Top