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  • Julian Talbot

Non-Verbal Communication

"What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every day, as managers, leaders, parents, friends and colleagues we consciously and unconsciously respond to, and transmit, countless nonverbal cues and behaviors, including postures, facial expression, pauses, proximity, touch tone of voice, eye gaze, obvious gestures, and micro-gestures.

All of our nonverbal behaviors send strong messages and they don't stop when you stop speaking. Even when you're silent, you're communicating constantly. It’s not my intent in this short article to make you an expert in non-verbal communication, but rather to provide some practical guidance and help you realize how important this skill is to a supervisor or leader – indeed to any human being.

So what is nonverbal communication and how do we use it? Essentially, it involves communication through wordless (mostly - but not exclusively - visual) cues between people. It is often referred to as body language, but nonverbal communication encompasses much more than just signals transmitted by the body. From our handshakes to our eye contact, nonverbal details reveal who we are and impact how we relate to other people. We communicate information in nonverbal ways using clusters of behaviors. For example, someone with crossed arms might simply be cold, a frown could mean they just remembered they had forgotten something on the shopping list, and direct unblinking eye contact might mean they are very interested in what we have to say. Put crossed arms, a frown and unblinking eye contact together at the same time however, and we would be wise to consider the strong possibility that they are indicating disapproval.

The good news is that we already know a lot about nonverbal communications and that you don’t need to be an expert. With practice and some conscious attention to others, you can become more accurate in understanding people’s communications and in spreading your own message. If you have only ever read one book on nonverbal communication but actively applied it, you would already have put yourself into the top ten percent of communicators. The bad news is that reading that book won’t make you a mind reader. Contrary to some articles in popular magazines, even the experts are no better than 80% at predicting if someone is telling the truth.

Luckily, you don’t need to be a human lie detector. If you just learn to understand when someone is comfortable or uncomfortable in a particular situation or with a particular topic you’ll be a much more adept communicator. By coming back to a topic repeatedly during a conversation or even over several conversations, you will start to know if it’s the topic or some other issue that is making them uncomfortable. For example, when you ask one of your staff if they have finished a particular task many people will say “yes” or “almost” even if they are struggling with it. If you are sensitive to understanding their nonverbal messages, you will quickly be able to tell if “yes” means “yes!” or if it means “er, I don’t want to disappoint you boss by admitting that I’m struggling, but I could really use some help right now…”. If the message is truly the first meaning (Yes!) then you can move on quickly, but if their body language is transmitting the latter message, you’d be wise to pause and ask a couple of open-ended questions or offer some assistance.

Why nonverbal communication matters

How you behave, listen, look, move, and react tells other people whether or not they can trust you. It expresses whether or not you care, if you’re being truthful, and how well you’re listening. When your nonverbal signals are congruent and match up with the words you’re saying, they increase trust, clarity, and rapport. When they don’t, they generate tension, distrust, and apprehension.

Quite simply, if what comes out of your mouth and what you communicate through body language are in conflict, the listener has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message.

Most times, they're going to choose the nonverbal. They do this because subconsciously, they realize that nonverbal communication is a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions in any given moment. In fact, no matter how we may try to mask our nonverbal communication, it will leak out in our body language and nonverbal messages. This is because our subconscious brain and, in particular, our 'fight-or-flight' reptilian brain will be overriding our attempt at deception. Most of us learned early in life to sit a certain way to convey a certain message, and to not cross our arms or to shake hands in a certain way in order to appear confident or assert dominance. The truth is that such tricks aren’t likely to work unless you truly feel confident and in charge. Quite simply, we can’t control all of the signals we are constantly sending off about what we are really thinking and feeling. You may be able to mask it for a few minutes with carefully orchestrated body language but the harder and longer you try, the more unnatural your signals are likely to come across.

If you want to become a better communicator, don’t just become more sensitive to the nonverbal cues of others, but also to your own. Be congruent and honest, so that you can use your nonverbal communication to reinforce and emphasize your messages. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, take time out. Give yourself a moment or at least some deep breaths to calm down before you jump back into the conversation. Once you’ve regained your emotional equilibrium, you’ll be better equipped to deal with the situation in a positive way.

The Elements of Nonverbal Communication

Together, the following nonverbal signals and cues communicate your interest and investment in others.

  • Facial expressions are one of the key areas for reading nonverbal communication. Consider, for example, how much information can be conveyed with a smile or a frown. While nonverbal communication can vary between cultures, the facial expressions for core emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt and fear are similar throughout the world. Many of these expressions pass briefly across the face in a microgesture lasting perhaps 1/30th of a second. Experts like Paul Ekman have spent decades deciphering these and developing training courses to help people consciously recognize such microgestures but your subconscious will almost always see them. Without training, you are unlikely to spot them but nonetheless, trust your intuition - if something seems odd it’s quite likely that you’ve subconsciously seen a microgesture of contempt or similar.

  • Touch is another key element of nonverbal communications. Think about the messages given by a weak handshake, a warm bear hug, a reassuring slap on the back, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on your arm. Touch can be used in many ways: to communicate affection, familiarity, sympathy, aggression and many other emotions.

  • Space. 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. The amount of distance we need and the amount of space we perceive as belonging to us is influenced by a number of factors including social norms, situational factors, personality characteristics and level of familiarity. For example, the amount of personal space needed when having a casual conversation with another person usually varies between 18 inches to four feet depending on the individual and their environment. A farmer in central Australia meeting someone from Hong Kong, for example, is likely to find the conversation challenging when they both try to adopt their normal spacing requirements.

  • Our posture and gestures involve movements and signals which communicate meaning without words. Consider how our perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up, or hold their head. Common gestures include waving, pointing, and using fingers to indicate numeric amounts. The way you move, stand and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world.

  • Paralinguistics refers to vocal communication that is separate from actual language. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. Things they pay attention to include rhythm, speed, volume and pitch, 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. Consider the powerful effect that tone of voice can have on the meaning of a sentence. When said in a strong tone of voice, listeners might interpret approval and enthusiasm. The same words said in a hesitant tone of voice might convey disapproval and a lack of interest. Take the following sentence: “I never said she stole the book” and try saying it seven times out loud, with emphasis on a different word each time. You’ll quickly see how dramatically meaning can change.

  • The visual sense is dominant for most people and eye contact is an accordingly major element 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. Looking, staring and blinking can also be important nonverbal behaviors. When people encounter people or things that they like, the rate of blinking increases and pupils dilate. Looking at another person can indicate a range of emotions, including hostility, interest and attraction.

  • Our choices regarding color, clothing, hairstyles and other factors affecting appearance are also considered a means of nonverbal communication. Appearance can also alter physiological reactions, judgments and interpretations. Just think of all the subtle judgements you quickly make about someone based on his or her appearance. These first impressions are important, which is why experts suggest that job seekers dress appropriately for interviews with potential employers.

How to use nonverbal communication

There are many different types of nonverbal communication and they can play several significant roles that can make your life as a manager or parent or human being a lot easier (or a lot harder if you don’t understand nonverbal communications):

  • Contradiction: nonverbal messages can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey.

  • Correction: nonverbal communications can correct a verbal message. For example, a person's gestures or eye movements can often convey a far more vivid message than their words.

  • Confirmation: nonverbal communications can add to or complement a verbal message. A physical gesture such as an arm touch or a pat on the back can emphasise and confirm your message of praise to a staff member and significantly increase the impact of your words.

  • Emphasis: nonverbal communications can accent or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can send a clear message about the importance of your message that words alone may fail to convey.

  • Congruence: nonverbal communications can confirm the message the person is making verbally. If what you say isn't congruent with your body language your audience will (consciously or unconsciously) choose to believe your body language and tone of voice rather than your words.

Pay attention to inconsistencies between verbal and nonverbal communications. Nonverbal communication should be consistent with what is being said and vice versa. Is the person saying one thing, but their body language something else? For example, are they saying “yes” while shaking their head no?

Look at nonverbal communication signals as a cluster of signals and don’t read too much into a single gesture or nonverbal cue. Remember, you can’t tell if someone is lying so focus on noticing their comfort or discomfort and where it occurs. Consider all of the nonverbal signals from eye contact to tone of voice and gestures. Taken together, are their nonverbal cues consistent—or inconsistent—with what their words are saying? Are they talking politely to you but their eyes keep looking towards the door?

It's important to recognize, though, that it's our nonverbal communication—our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice—that speaks 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. Once you understand the basics, learning how to manage stress and emotions in the heat of the moment is one of the most important things you can do to improve your nonverbal communication. Stress compromises your ability to communicate. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to misread other people, send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals, and lapse into unhealthy knee-jerk patterns of behavior. Furthermore, emotions are contagious. You being upset is very likely to trigger others to be upset, making a bad situation worse.

When it comes to nonverbal communications, the old adage of ‘trust your instincts’ is particularly true. Your subconscious will pick up on telltales and inconsistencies well before you become consciously aware of them. If you get the sense that someone isn’t being honest or that something isn’t consistent, you are probably picking up on a mismatch between verbal and nonverbal cues.

Do you know which is the most honest part of the body?

When I ask people what the most honest part of the body is, most people respond with “the eyes” or perhaps “the hands”.

It may come as a surprise to you to know that the most honest parts of the body for most people are the feet.

"I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape."

Desmond Morris Author of 36 books on non-verbal communication

We learn to manage our hand gestures when we are with others, even if only to avoid knocking over our coffee cup, and we are trained from an early age to use our eyes consciously. Have you ever heard an adult tell a child to “look at me when you are speaking” or conversely been told that “dishonest people can’t look you in the eye when they speak to your”? Many, if not most, liars will look you directly in the eye when they lie to you and for two good reasons. Firstly because they too have been told that being unable to look someone in the eye is a sign of dishonesty, but more importantly, they will hold eye contact for a long time because they want to know if you believe them. They are typically looking you in the eye not because they think it will help them be believable, but because they want constant feedback regarding whether what they are saying is being believed.

The most honest parts of the body are your feet because we aren’t consciously aware of trying to mask them. The emotional brain however, knows when it wants out of a situation. Rather than take my word for it, I suggest you just start watching people’s feet when they are in groups. The feet will point towards the person(s) that each individual is most interested in, and likewise, towards the door when they have had enough and want to leave. Next time you are in a meeting with someone and you see their feet starting to get closer to the door, or at least pointing towards it, you have used up your welcome and it’s time to end the meeting. Likewise, when you are chatting to someone you are interested in, when their feet are pointing towards you, you can be sure it is reciprocated. None of this is guaranteed of course and you have to look for clusters of signals to confirm people’s intentions, but spend a week noticing the direction people point their feet in meetings, at parties, in the street, etc and see what you think.

Another telltale sign which can help you to see when people are uncomfortable, is touching sensitive areas. When people are uncomfortable, they will touch their neck, rub the tops of their legs under the table or otherwise touch sensitive areas of exposed skin unconsciously. We do that because stimulating the nerve endings – especially in sensitive areas such as the neck – releases endorphins in the brain to make us feel better. We don’t do it in very obvious ways however. Men will adjust their shirt collar or tie, or perhaps rub the back of their neck. Women are more likely to play with or adjust jewellery such as pendants and neck chains. When you see people do this, it means that they (or more correctly, the emotional part of their brains) are feeling uncomfortable.

Keen to learn more?

This is just a quick overview of nonverbal communication and we’ve barely skimmed the surface. It’s an essential topic to gain skills in if you want to be a successful and effective manager, supervisor, friend or parent. Hopefully, I’ve helped develop your interest in this subject. If you’d like to know more about this subject - and I would strongly encourage you to pursue the study of nonverbal communication – I’d suggest you start with “What Every Body is Saying” by Joe Navarro or "Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life" by Paul Ekman and some of the ‘Recommended Reading’ in the Appendix of The New Supervisor's Handbook.

You can find out more about the book via this link.



A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There is enough information in this article to confuse you and help you alienate your friends, colleagues and family. For example (and to help you apply this information) if someone crosses their arms, closes their eyes or crosses their legs while in conversation with you, it is best to immediately launch into a diatribe about their lack of empathy and disinterest. Explain that you've just spent the last 20 minutes lecturing them for their own good and they should start paying attention. Either that, or you could just ask them if they are cold and would like you to turn the heating up. They are probably cold. Or they could be bored and you may well be the source of that boredom. In any case it is clearly their fault.

The actual disclaimer part of this random rant is that I realize that, as a percentage of what there is to know about non-verbal communication, I know comparatively less and less with each passing year, so you should probably ignore any of my advice and seek out people like Ekman and Navarro, Desmond Morris or Allan Pease. Desmond Morris' book "Manwatching: A Field Guide to Human Behaviour" was the first book I read on this subject and he has been studying this a lot longer than I. According to Wikipedia, he lives in North Oxford (in the same house as the 19th-century lexicographer James Murray who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary) so you now know where to find him - but at the age of 90 he'd be entitled to have an old man rant and send you away.

Joe Navarro on the other hand is still consulting and his books are probably the best of the 20 or so I've read. Elly Johnson is also a good person to contact if you really want to learn about this stuff. She has a lot of great articles at her LinkedIn page and awesome courses at Training Group International.

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