Nonverbal Communication Skills: Definition and Examples
According to Indeed data, communication skills consistently ranked among the top skills most commonly listed in new job postings by employers in 2020. Having strong communication skills is essential for building both personal and professional relationships.
There are two predominant types of communication: verbal and nonverbal. While most of us are aware of and use verbal communication on a regular basis, nonverbal communication is most commonly not intentional and can offer considerable information about both people and situations.
In this guide, we will discuss what nonverbal communication is, why it is important, how to read it and how you can improve your nonverbal communication skills.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is the transfer of information through the use of body language including eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and more. For example, smiling when you meet someone conveys friendliness, acceptance and openness. Everyone uses nonverbal communication all the time whether they know it or not.
Nonverbal communication is dependent on seeing and analyzing physical movements as opposed to verbal communication, or the use of language to transfer information through written text, speaking or sign language.
Why is nonverbal communication important?
Nonverbal communication is important because it gives us valuable information about a situation including how a person might be feeling, how someone receives information and how to approach a person or group of people. Paying attention to and developing the ability to read nonverbal communications is an invaluable skill you can leverage at every stage of your career.
Benefits of effective nonverbal communication
There are several ways nonverbal communication can support your ability to communicate effectively in the workplace, including:
It supports your message. When having a conversation, participating in a meeting or engaging in conversation, nonverbal cues can emphasize and underscore the content of your message. For example, using hand gestures to indicate the importance of an idea may tell your listeners to pay attention to and remember a key point.
It communicates messages. You may also use only nonverbal communication to communicate with others. For example, if someone is explaining a sentiment you admire and agree with, you might nod your head up and down to express solidarity.
It shows intention. Your body language may also intentionally or unintentionally express your current condition. For example, people may pick up nonverbal cues that you are being dishonest, unengaged, excited or aggressive.
It conveys feelings. You can also use nonverbal communication to show your feelings, such as disappointment, relief, happiness, contentment and more.
It offers support. Nonverbal cues are also a great way to show support. Whether it's a simple smile or pat on the back, actions may speak louder than words in many cases.
It showcases your personality. Nonverbal communication is a great way to show who you are. For example, a kind and optimistic person might frequently smile with open body language and offer friendly touches.
It indicates a desired action. This might include inching toward a door to indicate your desire to leave the room, raising your hand to offer an idea or putting your hand out to meet someone new.
It deescalates tension. Using a calm tone of voice, open body language and directive gestures may help to resolve a difficult situation.
Types of nonverbal communication
There are several types of nonverbal communications you should be aware of, including:
1. Body language
Body language is the way someone situates their body depending on the situation, the environment and how they are feeling.
Example: Someone might cross their arms if they are feeling angry or nervous.
The way you move your arms and legs such as walking quickly or slowly, standing, sitting or fidgeting, can all convey different messages to onlookers.
Example: Sitting still and paying attention in a meeting conveys respect and attention.
The way you sit or stand can also communicate your comfort level, professionalism and general disposition towards a person or conversation.
Example: Someone might slouch their shoulders if they feel tired, frustrated or disappointed.
While gestures vary widely across communities, they are generally used both intentionally and unintentionally to convey information to others.
Example: Someone might display a “thumbs up” to communicate confirmation or that they feel positive about something.
Creating or closing distance between yourself and the people around you can also convey messages about your comfort level, the importance of the conversation, your desire to support or connect with others and more.
Example: You might stand two to three feet away from a new contact to respect their boundaries.
Paralanguage includes the non-language elements of speech, such as your talking speed, pitch, intonation, volume and more.
Example: You might speak quickly if you are excited about something.
7. Facial expressions
One of the most common forms of nonverbal communication is facial expressions. Using the eyebrows, mouth, eyes and facial muscles to convey emotion or information can be very effective.
Example: Someone might raise their eyebrows and open their eyes widely if they feel surprised.
8. Eye contact
Strategically using eye content (or lack of eye contact) is an extremely effective way to communicate your attention and interest.
Example: Looking away from someone and at the ground or your phone may convey disinterest or disrespect.
Some people also use touch as a form of communication. Most commonly, it is used to communicate support or comfort. This form of communication should be used sparingly and only when you know the receiving party is okay with it. It should never be used to convey anger, frustration or any other negative emotions.
Example: Placing your hand on a friend’s shoulder may convey support or empathy.
Nonverbal communication skills and examples
There are several common skills that make you a valuable colleague, leader and teammate. These skills are also highly desired by employers you may interview with that fall into four main categories:
Paying attention: While it seems simple, the ability to stay engaged is an essential skill that can help you learn quickly and communicate effectively.
Picking up on nonverbal cues: It becomes easier to pick up on both small and obvious, intentional and unintentional nonverbal communication when you practice. Pay attention to people’s posture, movements, body language, facial expressions and eye contact as they change.
Interpreting nonverbal cues: Once you can more easily and accurately spot nonverbal cues, you can learn to interpret them to be a better communicator. For example, if you notice that someone is speaking quietly with slouched shoulders or crossed arms, it may be a cue that they feel nervous or anxious. You can respond empathetically by smiling and holding a warm and open body posture.
Using nonverbal cues: It is equally important to develop your own use of nonverbal cues to support your professional skills and to control any unproductive or unprofessional communications in the workplace.
How to read body language
Reading body language is a difficult skill you will continue to develop throughout your career. While each person uses nonverbal communication differently, there are several common cues to pay attention to that will inform you about a person’s feelings, intentions, motivations and more. When you are communicating with someone, it’s helpful to notice their body language while also taking in their verbal communication.
Here are a few uses of body language to look for:
If a person has their shoulders back and spine straight, this is a sign that they are engaged, listening and open to the ideas or information you are presenting. If they are exhibiting poor posture with their shoulders slouched or raised and spine bent, they might be nervous, anxious or angry.
2. Use of arms
If a person has their arms down to their side, on the table or arranged in some other open way, this is a sign that they feel positive and ready to absorb information. If their arms are crossed or closed, they might be experiencing some sort of negative emotion.
3. Use of legs
If a person has both feet placed flat on the ground, this is a sign that they feel ready and open to hear your ideas. If their legs are crossed or arranged in some other closed formation, they might be feeling irritated or stressed.
4. Use of facial expressions
If you are communicating with someone who is frowning, has a furrowed brow or tight lips, you might pause to ensure they don’t feel confused, angry or some other negative emotion. If you are communicating with someone who has a soft smile, relaxed facial muscles or gently raised eyebrows, this is a sign that they feel good about the information you are presenting.
How to respond to body language
Be sensitive when responding to nonverbal communications. Many people may be unaware of their body language and might be embarrassed if you bring it up. If you sense someone might be angry, anxious or confused during your communications, take a moment to consider the best course of action based on the individual.
If you feel it would be beneficial to ask how they are feeling in the moment, gently address them with something like:
“I sense you might be feeling overwhelmed with my presentation. Is there something I can take time to explain, or an idea you’d like to give feedback on?”
“Is this is a good time to talk about our new process? If not, I’m happy to find a better time we can chat.”
If you are in a meeting with several people, it might be a better idea to address them afterward in a one-on-one setting.
How to improve nonverbal communication
To improve your own nonverbal communication, there are a few steps you can take:
1. Do a body language test
Pay close attention to the ways you use body language over a business week. Notice your body language, facial expressions and posture in meetings, during casual exchanges and in presentations. See how others respond to your natural nonverbal communications.
2. Notice how your emotions feel physically
Emotions are not purely felt in the mind; they affect us physically, too. Throughout the day, as you experience a range of emotions (anything from energized, bored, happy or frustrated), try to identify where you feel that emotion within your body.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious, you might notice that your stomach feels tight. Developing the self-awareness of how your emotions affect your body can give you greater mastery over your external presentation.
3. Be intentional about your nonverbal communications
Be attentive when trying to communicate with others using facial expressions or body language. Make an effort to display positive body language when you feel alert, open and positive about your surroundings.
You can also use body language to support your verbal communication if you feel confused or anxious about information, like using a furrowed brow. Use body language alongside verbal communication such as asking follow-up questions or pulling the presenter aside to give feedback.
4. Mimic nonverbal communications you find effective
If you witness certain facial expressions or body language you find beneficial to a certain setting, use it as a guide when improving your own nonverbal communications. For example, if you see that when someone nods their head it communicates approval and positive feedback efficiently, use it in your next meeting when you have the same feelings.
5. Nonverbal communication is an essential part of having excellent communication skills
Take time to understand the body language and facial expressions of others you work with, as well as to develop the ways you use nonverbal communications
Using nonverbal communication in an interview
Nonverbal communication is an essential part of the interview. It is important both to read and interpret the nonverbal cues of your interviewers and to respond with appropriate body language throughout. Here are a few tips for using nonverbal communication in your next interview:
Stand up when your interviewer enters the room and greet them with a reasonably confident handshake.
Smile when greeting your interviewer and naturally throughout your interview.
Sit with your shoulders back and chin up to convey confidence.
Place both feet on the ground or crossed at the ankles and lay your hands on top of one another on the table to express openness and friendliness.
Use gestures naturally without being distracting.
Speak with a reasonable, confident tone so your interviewers can easily and clearly understand you without being too loud.
Use natural, conversational intonation without going up or down too unnaturally.
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