9 Types of Nonverbal Communication and How To Understand Them

Updated July 31, 2023

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 often not intentional and can offer considerable information about both people and situations.

In this guide, we'll discuss what nonverbal communication is, why it's important, how to read it and how you can improve your own nonverbal communication skills.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is the transfer of information through body language, facial expressions, gestures, created space and more. For example, smiling when you meet someone conveys friendliness, acceptance and openness.

Nonverbal communication is dependent on expressions and physical movements as opposed to verbal communication, or the use of language to transfer information through written text, speaking or sign language.

Related: 4 Types of Communication and How To Improve Them

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.

Related: Observation Skills: Definition and Examples

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 positions 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.

Related: How to Stand Out in an Interview in 11 Unique Ways

2. Movement

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.

3. Posture

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.

4. Gestures

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.

Related: 20 Steps To Improve Your Body Language in the Workplace

5. Space

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.

6. Paralanguage

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.

Related: 17 Things to Avoid Doing in a Job Interview

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.

9. Touch

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.

Read more: The Complete Guide To Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

How to read nonverbal cues

Reading nonverbal cues, such as 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 and motivations.

When communicating with someone, it’s helpful to be mindful of any signs of nonverbal communication, while also taking in their verbal communication. Here are a few cues you might observe:

1. Posture

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.

Related: How To Sit Properly at a Desk

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 open to communication. 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're 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.

Related: How To Use and Understand Body Language

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.

  • Communicate 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.

Frequently asked questions

How do you improve your nonverbal communication?

While some aspects of nonverbal communication are innate, you can develop many elements with practice and awareness. By studying and understanding nonverbal cues, observing others and seeking feedback, you can improve your nonverbal communication skills and become more proficient in interpreting and conveying messages effectively.

How does technology affect nonverbal communication?

In digital interactions, nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language may be absent or difficult to interpret. New forms of nonverbal communication exist through emojis, video clips and other visual elements in online communication. Using these new forms of communication can help you improve your ability to make and maintain connections online.

Can culture influence nonverbal communication?

Cultural practices and norms can influence nonverbal communication heavily. Gestures, facial expressions and body language can have different meanings across cultures. You can be aware of cultural differences and try to adapt your nonverbal behavior accordingly when interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

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