It’s well known that good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, be it personal or professional. It’s important to recognize, though, that it’s our nonverbal communication—our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice—that speak the loudest.
The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication, or body language, is a powerful tool that can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, and build better relationships.
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“Nonverbal Friend Signals” Show Notes
What is nonverbal communication and body language?
When we interact with others, we continuously give and receive wordless signals. All of our nonverbal behaviors—the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages. These messages don’t stop when you stop speaking either. Even when you’re silent, you’re still communicating nonverbally.
Oftentimes, what comes out of our mouths and what we communicate through our body language are two totally different things. When faced with these mixed signals, the listener has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message, and, in most cases, they’re going to choose the nonverbal because it’s a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions in any given moment.
Why nonverbal communication matters
The way you listen, look, move, and react tells the other person whether or not you care, if you’re being truthful, and how well you’re listening. When your nonverbal signals match up with the words you’re saying, they increase trust, clarity, and rapport. When they don’t, they generate tension, mistrust, and confusion.
If you want to become a better communicator, it’s important to become more sensitive not only to the body language and nonverbal cues of others, but also to your own.
Nonverbal communication cues can play five roles:
- Repetition: they can repeat the message the person is making verbally.
- Contradiction: they can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey.
- Substitution: they can substitute for a verbal message. For example, a person’s eyes can often convey a far more vivid message than words do.
- Complementing: they may add to or complement a verbal message. A boss who pats a person on the back in addition to giving praise can increase the impact of the message.
- Accenting: they may accent or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can underline a message.
Source: The Importance of Effective Communication, Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D.
Types of nonverbal communication and body language
There are many different types of nonverbal communication. Together, the following nonverbal signals and cues communicate your interest and investment in others.
The human face is extremely expressive, able to express countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across cultures.
Body movements and posture
Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up, or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world. This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance, and subtle movements.
Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. However, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation.
Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response.
We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a weak handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring slap on the back, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on your arm.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was standing too close and invading your space? We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the culture, the situation, and the closeness of the relationship. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy and affection, aggression or dominance.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. Things they pay attention to include your timing and pace, how loud you speak, your tone and inflection, and sounds that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-huh.” Think about how someone’s tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence.
Nonverbal communication can’t be faked
You may be familiar with advice on how to sit a certain way, steeple your fingers, or shake hands just so in order to appear confident or assert dominance. But the truth is that such tricks aren’t likely to work (unless you truly feel confident and in charge). That’s because you can’t control all of the signals you’re constantly sending off about what you’re really thinking and feeling. And the harder you try, the more unnatural your signals are likely to come across.
How nonverbal communication can go wrong
What you communicate through your body language and nonverbal signals affects how others see you, how well they like and respect you, and whether or not they trust you.
Unfortunately, many people send confusing or negative nonverbal signals without even knowing it. When this happens, both connection and trust are damaged.
Nonverbal communication and body language in relationships
Ted, Arlene, and Jack are all articulate speakers who say one thing while communicating something else nonverbally, with disastrous results in their relationships:
believes he gets along great with his colleagues at work, but if you were to ask any of them, they would say that Jack is “intimidating” and “very intense.” Rather than just look at you, he seems to devour you with his eyes. And if he takes your hand, he lunges to get it and then squeezes so hard it hurts. Jack is a caring guy who secretly wishes he had more friends, but his nonverbal awkwardness keeps people at a distance and limits his ability to advance at work.
is attractive and has no problem meeting eligible men, but she has a difficult time maintaining a relationship longer than a few months. Arlene is funny and interesting, but even though she constantly laughs and smiles, she radiates tension. Her shoulders and eyebrows are noticeably raised, her voice is shrill, and her body is stiff. Being around Arlene makes many people feel uncomfortable. Arlene has a lot going for her that is undercut by the discomfort she evokes in others.
thought he had found the perfect match when he met Sharon, but Sharon wasn’t so sure. Ted is good looking, hardworking, and a smooth talker, but Ted seemed to care more about his thoughts than Sharon’s. When Sharon had something to say, Ted was always ready with wild eyes and a rebuttal before she could finish her thought. This made Sharon feel ignored, and soon she started dating other men. Ted loses out at work for the same reason. His inability to listen to others makes him unpopular with many of the people he most admires.
These smart, well-intentioned people struggle in their attempt to connect with others. The sad thing is that they are unaware of the nonverbal messages they communicate.
If you want to communicate effectively, avoid misunderstandings, and enjoy solid, trusting relationships both socially and professionally, it’s important to understand how to use and interpret nonverbal signals.
“Nonverbal Friend Signals” Episode Resources
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