Performance Communication

What great communicators know about nonverbal communication

What great communicators know about nonverbal communication

From facial expressions and body language, to our vocal qualities, clothes, and even how we use or misuse time, our nonverbal communication speaks “loud and clear,” whether we want it to or not. Here’s why:

First, it is our primary mode of communication.

Before you could speak, you “communicated” how you felt using body language, tone, volume, etc. As a child, you cried, yelled, threw yourself on the floor, and kicked your feet to let others know when you were upset (and perhaps some who are reading this still do). For many people the things they think and feel aren’t easy for them to verbalize, so they express them nonverbally. If I’m hurt by something you said, I might not want to be vulnerable enough to tell you so, but I’ll find it easier to communicate my hurt by giving you the silent treatment or finding a way to “pay you back.”

Second, nonverbal communication tells the truth about what we think and feel.

It’s easy for most of us to lie with our words. However, it’s harder to “fake it” with your body language and tone. I can say “I’m so glad to see you,” but if I’m really not, you’ll probably be able to tell from my tone of voice or my facial expression. If you stop someone in the hallway and say, “Do you have time to talk,” and the person suddenly looks concerned, glances at his or her watch, exhales audibly, and says, “Um . . .sure . . . I guess,” you’ve just been told no, despite the words that came out of the person’s mouth.

If you want to be a great communicator, you have to understand how to use nonverbal communication to your advantage and develop your ability to identify and interpret others’ nonverbals too.

1. Great communicators know they should match their nonverbals to their messages.

Nonverbals that send messages that are consistent with the words you use will reinforce those words. If you, “mean it,” you have to look and sound like you mean it. You can’t tell someone, “If you don’t come in on time tomorrow, I’ll need to write you up,” while looking at your shoes and whispering. You need to speak firmly and without hesitation, look the person directly in the eye, and sound as if you mean what we’re saying.

2. Great communicators know they must pay attention to their thoughts and feelings before speaking.

If you want to sound confident, but feel terrified, at best you’ll come across as insecure. The mindset and emotion must match the words. The same goes for when you’re angry or upset about something, but want to discuss the problem calmly without sounding angry or upset. You’re not going to pull it off because the anger will likely “leak” through your nonverbal communication. You only have two options to be successful in such situations. You can either change your thoughts and feelings on the spot, which is difficult, or you can wait until you have calmed down and have had time to reassess the situation, and then have the conversation.

3. Great communicators realize nonverbal communication is situational.

A strong tone meant to tell someone, “I mean it!” might be read as assertive by one person, and misinterpreted by another as anger or frustration. Additionally, nonverbals can take on different connotations depending on the situation. For example, the strong tone you might use when telling children at home, “I mean it,” may be completely inappropriate at work or in a social situation. Therefore, you may need to adjust your nonverbals for different situations and people.

4. Great communicators understand that nonverbal communication varies across cultures.

Americans view eye contact as a tremendous indicator of sincerity, honesty, and confidence. As such, most require eye contact in order to take interactions seriously.

Keep in mind though, the use of eye contact, and in fact many nonverbal messages, mean different things in different cultures. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to learn the nonverbal “rules” of every culture in the world. However, when interacting with others, you should consider that they might not operate under the same nonverbal rules as you do.

Additionally, when you’re in social or work situations where you know you’ll be interacting with people from a different culture, it’s a good idea to become at least familiar with some of their nonverbal “customs” not only so you can better read them, but to allow you to adjust your nonverbals accordingly.

5. Great communicators pay attention to what others’ nonverbals are telling them, but are cautious not to over-interpret their meaning.

Just as your nonverbals communicate to others, their nonverbals are communicating to you. When talking with someone, even on the telephone, listen carefully to what his or her nonverbals are telling you. Are they sending contradicting messages from the person’s words? Do the nonverbals reveal something about how the person is feeling or what he or she may really think?

However, don’t make the mistake of believing that by reading others’ nonverbals you become a mind reader. Nonverbal behaviors can often have more than one interpretation. If in doubt about what someone’s behavior is telling you, ask or use the Perception Checking technique I shared in a previous post.

For more help in becoming a great communicator, check out my book, Practical Communication: 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Finding the Balance Between Getting Along and Getting Things Done on

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