Non-verbal communication describes the signals that you send out through your body language. They are often produced and interpreted by a subconscious process. Our body language can convey things that our words don’t and will reveal our true emotions. When an individual sends mismatched body language and verbal communication, the majority of recipients will believe the non-verbal communication over the verbal message. Disparity between signals can generate tension, mistrust and confusion. This article serves as an introduction to non-verbal communication and will discuss the interpretation of body language, the seven universal human emotions and how you can use non-verbal communication to your advantage.
Introduction to Non-Verbal Communication
The Five Roles of Non-Verbal Communication
- Repeats and strengthens the verbal message.
- Contradicts the verbal message. Conveys you may be lying.
- Can substitute for a verbal message. Can convey something far more vivid than words can describe.
- May add to or complement the verbal message.
- May accent or underline the importance of a verbal message. For example, pounding on the table.
Types of Non-Verbal Communication
The human face can convey countless expressions. They are universal across cultures. Read more about the seven universal human emotions below.
Body Movement and Posture
How individuals sit, walk, stand or hold their head. It includes posture, bearing, stance and subtle movements. The way you move and carry yourself matters!
Waving, pointing, using hands when speaking animatedly or specific hand signals. Beware that these are interpreted differently across cultures.
Can communicate interest, affection, hostility or attraction. Also used to gauge the interest and response of others.
Examples include a handshake, hugs or patting on the head.
This is the physical space between individuals. The need for space depends upon culture, situation and closeness of relationship. It can communicate signals such as intimacy, affection, aggression or dominance.
This is how you say things, not what you say. Pay attention to the timing, pace, volume, tone and inflections. It can indicate feelings such as sarcasm, anger, affection or confidence.
Reading Body Language
We can use non-verbal communication to our advantage by ensuring we are sending out the messages we wish to be heard as well as interpreting the messages that others send to us. Below are some examples of how body language can be interpreted. Take the following signs with a pinch of salt because different cultural backgrounds will affect the way body language is interpreted.
These behaviours suggest that the individual is likely to be disengaged, disinterested or unhappy:
- Arms folded in front of body or hands placed in pockets.
- Minimal or tense facial expression.
- Body turned away from you.
- Eyes downcast and maintaining little contact.
These behaviours suggest that the individual is likely to be bored by what you are saying:
- Sitting slumped, with heads downcast.
- Gazing at something else, or into space.
- Distracting mannerisms such as finger-pointing, fidgeting, tapping, playing with hair, picking at clothes or wringing of hands.
- Writing or doodling.
These behaviours can be adopted to project self-confidence and openness:
- Take up space with an open posture. Be relaxed and stand upright with your hands by your sides.
- Good eye contact. Hold their gaze for a few seconds at a time but don’t stare. This shows your involvement and interest.
- Avoid touching your face. If you do this while answering questions it can be seen as a sign of dishonesty.
- Confident handshake.
These behaviours can be used to help you engage people when presenting:
- Have a positive posture. Stand upright with your shoulders back and hands by your side or in front of you. Point your toes and shoulders towards them.
- Keep your head up.
- Stand with your weight evenly distributed with one foot slightly in front of the other.
- Use open hand gestures. Keep your hands apart with palms facing slightly toward the audience. Keep your upper arms close to the body.
Other thoughts on behaviour:
- Hands on hips can communicate aggression or desire to dominate.
- Learning too far forward can make you look aggressive.
- Learning too far back can make you look arrogant.
- Darting eyes (looking for less than a second) conveys insecurity, anxiety or evasion.
- Poor posture sends signals of low self-esteem, low energy and lack of confidence.
The Seven Universal Human Emotions
Paul Ekman has identified seven basic human emotions during his research on human behaviour and each of these is associated with a unique set of facial and vocal expressions. In this section we discuss how to identify each type. For more information visit his website on universal emotions. It’s really worth checking out!
- Facial Expression: Eyebrows pulled down and kept together. Eyes opened wide (upper eyelids pulled up, lower eyelids pulled up) and staring hard. Lips pressed tightly together.
- Vocal Expression: Yelling (if uncontrolled) or sharp edge (if controlled).
- Sensation: Feeling hot, sweating, tense muscles and clenched jaw or fist.
- Posture: Lean forward with head jutting forward and puffed chest.
- Facial Expression: Eyebrows raised and pulled together. Raised upper eyelids. Tensed lower eyelids. Jaw dropped open and lips stretched horizontally backwards.
- Vocal Expression: Higher pitched and strained tone.
- Sensation: Feeling cold, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling and tightening of muscles in arms and legs.
- Posture: Mobilising or immobilising.
- Facial Expression: Lowered eyebrows. Wrinkling on the side and bridge of the nose. Upper lip raised in an inverted “U”. Lower lip raised and slightly protruding.
- Vocal Expression: Choking and gagging. Expressions such as “yuck”.
- Sensation: Nausea, vomiting, feeling of revulsion in the mouth.
- Posture: Turning of head or body away from source of disgust.
- Facial Expression: Eyebrows narrowed and there is some wrinkling around the eyes. Cheeks are raised. Lips are pulled back and teeth are exposed in a smile.
- Vocal Expression: Sigh of content, squeal of joy, excited exclamation or laughter.
- Sensation: Feeling light, energetic, buzzing and warm.
- Posture: Upright and elevated or still and relaxed.
- Facial Expression: Inner corners of eyebrows pulled up and together. Upper eyelids drooped and eyes looking down. Lip corners pulled downward.
- Vocal Expression: Depends on intensity of sadness. Lower in pitch and softer in volume or it could be higher in pitch and louder in volume (wailing).
- Sensation: Tightness of chest, heavy limbs, stinging in throat and watery eyes.
- Posture: Loss of muscle tone, lowered or hunched posture and looking away or downwards.
- Facial Expression: Eyebrows raised, but not drawn together. Upper eyelids raised, lower eyelids neutral. Jaw dropped down.
- Vocal Expression: Audible quick momentary gasp.
- Sensation: General attentiveness.
- Posture: Move head, bringing hands up to shield face and stepping back from surprising object.
- Facial Expression: Tightened and raised lip corner on one side of the face. It is the only unilateral expression and can occur with or without a hint of smile or anger.
- Vocal Expression: Smugness or disapproving sounds.
- Sensation: This varies but might be similar to those of anger or those of joy. May also be uncomfortable or embarrassing.
- Posture: Puffed chest, upright posture, looking down at your nose or rolling of eyes.
Increasing Power through Non-Verbal Communication
The ultimate aim of communication is to ensure your message gets across in a way that helps you achieve your objectives while ensuring you hear the views of others. Interestingly the majority of communication is conveyed non-verbally and is processed by our subconscious mind. It is possible to increase our impact on others by altering the way we appear to their subconscious self. This is relatively simple to achieve by asking yourself five short questions posed in the book Power Cues by Nick Morgan. These questions help move non-verbal communication into the forefront of our consciousness and allow us to form new habits with a little patience and practice.
How do you show up when you enter a room?
Think about your non-verbal behaviour and how you appear in relation to others. Try thinking about this in your next meeting or when stood in front of the mirror. Take control of your presence and change both your thinking and the non-verbal messages you send to those around you.
What emotions does your tone of voice and body language convey?
Humans have a tendency to mirror the emotions of those around us. Take a moment to identify your own emotional intent at any given time. Notice how these feelings are felt by those around you. Once you are aware of how you are feeling, focus on sharing only those emotions you wish to share. Managing your own emotional leak helps control the emotional feelings of those around you.
What unconscious “messages” are you receiving from others?
Use your unconscious expertise to stay attuned to the hidden messages of everyone around you. What does their body language tell you that isn’t being said?
Do you have a leadership voice?
If you believe you are a leader, your unconscious signals will tell the rest of the world what to think about you. Believe in what you are and tune your tone of voice to lead your peers.
What authentic signals do you send out in key situations?
Establish the right levels of energy and passion to achieve your aim. Combine your verbal communication with your non-verbal communication to increase your chances of success. People will know when you are truly passionate about a topic.