Practical Communication

What You Don’t Know About Nonverbal Communication Can Hurt You

Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in either reinforcing or contradicting our words. An oft-quoted statistic states that 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal. However, to state such is to oversimplify the role of nonverbal communication. It’s fair to say though, that our nonverbal messages are critical to the believability of our words. Our cultural clichés reflect this reality: “Actions speak louder than words,” and “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

–From “Practical Communication: 25 Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Getting Along and Getting Things Done”



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. Sometimes people take the time to think about their nonverbals. For example, a parent may intentionally try to keep a straight face when a child does something inappropriate (but hilarious), or a person may select certain clothes to create a good impression in a social or work situation.

However, most of the time, people only worry about their words. As a result, they’re confused when the great “script” they’ve prepared doesn’t work and they don’t get the result they expected at the end of a conversation. They wonder, “Why did that customer tell my boss I was rude? All I said was …” or, “How did that conversation turn into an argument? I only told him…”

If you find yourself  saying, “All I said was,” “I only told him,” or a similar phrase, the odds are, it’s not what you said, but what your nonverbals said, that triggered the other person’s negative reaction.

Selecting words that are appropriate, clear, and specific is important don’t get me wrong. However, your nonverbal messages must reinforce your words for others to see you as credible and your message as believable. When the verbal and nonverbal conflict, most people instinctively know to “listen” to the nonverbal message.
Take the following situation. Two different supervisors confront their respective employees about being late to work. Supervisor A provides a warning about tardiness with a serious tone, facial expression, and body language. Supervisor B is hesitant, avoids eye contact, and has a quiet, apologetic tone.  Which supervisor will be taken seriously? The first of course. His or her verbal and nonverbal messages are the same, “This is serious and you’d better take care of it.” The second supervisor may be verbally saying, “You need to be on time,” but the nonverbal message is communicating, “I’m uncomfortable, I don’t want to have this conversation, and I won’t back up my words. Just ignore me.”

On the flip side of a conversation, when you’re a listener, it’s just as important to pay attention to the nonverbal messages others are sending to determine the true meaning of their communication, especially when the nonverbal message contradicts the verbal.

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