7 Types of Nonverbal Communication (With Examples and Tips)
Updated February 3, 2023
Two people share a handshake over their notes and planners.
Some people communicate more effectively with their words, while others may send and receive messages without using any words at all. Nonverbal communication can be an important skill for you to develop in your career. Understanding the different types of nonverbal communication and you’re using these nonverbal cues yourself can ensure you’re delivering the right message for the situation.
In this article, we explore seven common types of nonverbal communication you may come across in the workplace.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is the process of sending or receiving a message without using words, either written or spoken. While a psychiatrist and author officially coined the term in the 1950s, this form of communication has been around for centuries. Sir Francis Bacon observed in the 1600s that our bodies’ motions, or gestures, often disclose the state of the mind.
In the workplace, nonverbal communication can impact the way team members interact with one another, especially between a supervisor and their subordinates. It’s important to know how nonverbal communication can affect the way you work with your coworkers and members of your leadership team. What you communicate with words could differ from what you communicate in other ways.
Types of nonverbal communication
Here are seven types of nonverbal communication and how they may be used in the workplace:
Vocalics, also referred to as paralanguage, includes the way you speak, such as your tone of voice. No matter what you might say, the way you say it can communicate more than the words you choose.
Besides tone, vocalics might include the volume and pitch of your voice. For example, if you feel uncomfortable in a situation, you might naturally speak quietly to draw less attention to yourself. Conversely, speaking too loudly can make the person you are talking to feel you are trying to speak over them or overpower their opinion.
Sarcasm is also an example of nonverbal communication because it involves saying words in a tone that conveys the opposite meaning. For example, if you are being sarcastically enthusiastic about a situation, you might say “Oh, great” in a sarcastic tone. Although the words show a positive response, the way you say them shows otherwise.
How close you choose to stand or sit next to someone is also a form of nonverbal communication. The space around you is often referred to as your personal space, which generally is between 6-18 inches around your body.
For most people, this space is only for close friends and family to enter. If someone violates that space in a professional setting, you will probably feel put off by the interaction.
Being aware of your proximity to others can help to not violate someone’s personal space and make them feel uncomfortable. However, it’s also important to stand or sit close enough to someone so you can communicate effectively and clearly, as being too far away could make it difficult for them to understand you and might even signal that you’re not interested in the conversation.
Body movements, or kinetics, include nodding or gesturing with your hands. These common examples of body movements can convey your excitement about a conversation or topic.
Some gestures can be involuntary, such as wringing your hands, shaking when you're nervous or clearing your throat often. Some can also be distracting, especially if you're in a job interview or giving a professional presentation.
Touching another person is a key aspect of nonverbal communication. A hug conveys warmth and love, while a pat on the back can convey a job well done. Unsolicited or unwelcome touch can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, so it’s important to make sure your touch is always professional in the workplace.
Touch also varies between cultures. For example, in Central America, physical touch is a key part of all different types of relationships. In certain parts of Europe and North America, kissing on the cheek is a common way to greet another person. In the United States, people engage in less physical touch outside of personal relationships.
The most common form of touch in a professional setting is a handshake, which can also convey different meanings. A weak or limp handshake may show a lack of confidence, while a firm handshake conveys strength and respect.
5. Physiological changes
Physiological changes are most often linked to discomfort and stress in a situation. These types of changes include blushing, sweating or tearing up. You can’t control the physiological changes your body makes in situations, so these will often give away how you feel.
6. Facial expressions
Your face can often reveal your emotions in a situation. The expression you make can change the meaning of the words you say or show how you feel about what someone else is saying to you. For example, raising an eyebrow can convey an inquisitive feeling or even a devious one.
Rolling your eyes is a way to express displeasure or unhappiness with a situation. As you communicate with others, you can watch their facial expressions to get a better sense of their true reactions to what you say. Being aware of your own facial expressions is also important, especially in a professional atmosphere.
Staying attentive shows your interest and engagement with the person communicating with you. If you observe the person you’re conversing with looking away, this nonverbal cue shows distraction or unease. To maintain strong and effective communication, try to focus on what the other person is saying and keep your attention on them while they communicate.
Related: How To Be Approachable at Work
Nonverbal communication tips
Recognizing your own nonverbal communication tendencies is the first step in improving your nonverbal communication skills. Here are a few quick tips to help you improve your nonverbal communication skills in the workplace:
Perform a body language test: During your workday, evaluate your use of nonverbal cues, and how people react.
Evaluate how you physically feel: Identifying how your physical feelings correlate to your emotions will help you react to situations more positively.
Be intentional: Use appropriate nonverbal cues and be attentive when communicating — remember, your nonverbal gestures should support your verbal communication.
Mimic others: If someone you regularly interact with communicates well nonverbally, take note and learn from them.
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