Non-verbal Communication – why’s it so important?

What is it?

This is the communication that isn’t spoken words. It adds meaning and emphasis to our conversations and we use it a surprising amount. Various studies suggest that around 90% of our communication is non-verbal, although actually this varies considerably depending on the situation and the people involved.

This kind of communication includes gestures, facial expressions, body movement and posture used during a conversation. Although not strictly speaking non-verbal (given that it comes from our larynx or voice box) any kind of sound, cough, laugh, scream, guffaw or sigh as well as tone of voice for example are also considered part of non-verbal communication. So what we really mean by non-verbal is the elements of communication that are additional to the words that form the sentences that we speak.

Often we underestimate their importance. It is only when we consider text messages or e-mail communications in their raw states (no arm flailing, pointing eye rolling etc to be seen!) that we may realise what is missing. A while ago I was participating in an on-line chat forum and one person was offended by what another had said. While explanations and apologies went backwards and forwards in the chat, I couldn’t help feeling that if this had been a face to face group rather than live on-line chat, things would have panned out differently.

We use non-verbal communication all the time, without knowing it. It’s natural and intuitive for most people although used to different extents by different people. Some people can’t help talking with their hands (I think I am guilty here) whilst others are quite ‘still’ when they talk.

It is interesting coming into contact with people who have difficulty understanding regular language, such as people with learning disabilities or Autistic Spectrum Condition, or maybe people who speak a different language to ourselves. I find that intuitively I want to use my hands more (even more!). I hold up my fingers to show how many I mean or point deliberately at the thing I am talking about, hold my hands up to show dimensions or make all kinds of emphatic noises. Often with my children whose language is still developing and for whom I don’t always make the time to slow down and explain I use far more non-verbal communication.

Why is it important?

Non-verbal communication adds clarity and nuance to our conversation often where words alone cannot say what someone really means.

It helps us to understand the emotional element of what someone is saying “okay” can mean a lot of different things depending on how it is actually said.

It enriches and adds a certain depth to what we are saying, like the icing on the cake.

It emphasises and reinforces our message, and helps us commit to memory what others are saying to us.

It is far more interesting and easier to listen and pay attention to someone who has an interesting tone of voice or good eye contact for examples.

It is of course useful in situations where we might not be able to talk, for example in a meeting you may signal to someone that you are cold and need the window shutting without needing to say it.

Too much non-verbal communication in contrast can be a bit distracting and over the top.

Why do we need to know about it?

For some people non-verbal communication is more of a big deal than for others. Some of us really use these non verbal cues while to others don’t put so much weight on them. It is good to know though that there are differences so we adjust our communication style accordingly.

Communicating in groups is a situation where non-verbal communication is especially important to consider. People behave in different ways depending on whether they are comfortable and engaged in the discussion or bored or confused. If you are leading a group (maybe chairing a meeting) it is useful to be able to pick up on some of these nuances.

Most of non-verbal communication is unconscious, so we don’t really actively think about it. We are though often in situations though where there is an absence of non-verbal communication, or at least a reduced amount so it is good to be aware of it, enabling us to compensate for it. For example with remote working using a conference call where we get tone of voice, pauses and other vocal noises but don’t get the visuals, some bits of information may get lost. And in electronic communication, despite extra smiley faces and LOLs we are still always missing something. There are also so many systems that are used by people these days that not everyone is party to. ROTFL and other acronyms that attempt to replace some non-verbal communication (Rolling on the floor laughing in case you didn’t know!) are not universal and can lead to confusion.

In a group of fairly uniform beings communicating together, there is likely to be more of a shared code. But in our wonderfully enriched and increasingly culturally diverse society it is good to note that differences in understanding the broad arena of non-verbal communication may well exist. One kind if head nod or hand gesture may mean something to one set of people, but mean nothing (or worse be offensive) to others.

Non-verbal communication improves interactions. When considering internal communication within an organisation it is important to think not only about the rules of how to send e-mails, or protocols for answering phones, but how people will interact with each other. How people move about their shared working space and what the shape and size of the office is like affects non-verbal communication. It is often useful to be able to use non-verbal communication in close proximity but it is hard to do if you are sat upstairs from someone. Sometimes the most productive conversations start in passing, in the corridor through non-verbal communication.

What can we do to improve non-verbal communication?

The way to make our non-verbal communication better is to try to be more mindful of it in the first place. Some people use it a lot and others a little, but learning how to tap into how it is used can help us get much more out of communication.

When used well non-verbal communication is brilliant for conveying our message much more effectively, but can also be rather off putting if overdone.

A few exercises to try!

Try not using any non-verbal communication and see how it feels.

Try spotting someone else’s and see what you notice about them.

Try only using non-verbal communication and see how hard or how easy it is to get your message across.

Try different types of non-verbal communication – where you may feel the urge to use your hands maybe don’t, try something new.

Next time you log into a conference call, have a think about the way you might say things differently. What is it that often makes conference calls so uncomfortable? The extra information that we get from someone’s body language is missing, but how can we compensate for this?

Watch yourself when you use Social Networking or text messages, see how you may smile or laugh or pull a face, but think about how you can convey this (or not!).

The Illusion of Communication

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw

I heard this quote for the first time the other day and my immediate reaction was ‘oh how true’! For a whole variety of different reasons, communication can break down in lots of different ways.

It’s so frustrating to think you have said something, but to find out later that, well, you sort of haven’t really or at least not what you meant to say.

  • The first problem is that what we say is not always heard. This is not just the words that we physically say that may have been disguised by the interference of noise or some other interruption, but a message that we send out in other ways. This extends to the gestures we make, the pictures we paint, or in the digital world the e-mail, text or tweet we send that is simply not seen, heard or received.

  • Secondly, even if something is heard, it is not always understood. So, when we say “watch the dinner” we probably don’t mean keep looking at it, but more likely are asking someone to check it’s cooking okay and do something with it if it’s not. Or when we send an e-mail saying “I’ll see you at the meeting next Wednesday” (and no date) it does really depend on when the recipient is opening that e-mail as to what their immediate understanding of ‘next Wednesday’ is. The plethora of different methods of communicating these days are all subject to misinterpretation, with a variety of effects (some comedy, some more serious). Also in a beautifully diverse society, the way we actually interpret messages that are either deliberately vague or just open to suggestion can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings.

  • Even if we get to the point where we have heard and understood what has been said to us, we may not really agree or believe what we have heard. With each message we receive and understand we make an unconscious decision about whether we think that is right or not. This of course is what makes conversations interesting and leads us to have debates, discussions and sometimes arguments. But in our world of broadcasting information, where we often send out much more than we receive we may assume that people will attach the same importance to something or pick up an inference and essentially  ‘get’ what we have said, which may not always be the case.

  • If our message has been heard, understood and agreed with though, we like to know that what we have communicated has had an impact of some kind. Even it is saying good morning to someone, the impact is usually one of some kind of feeling of wellbeing and we like to know that this has happened. We like to feel that whatever we have said, or asked someone to do, has changed their day in some small way, or why would we have bothered in the first place. It may be that after getting the information the recipient is actually supposed to do something with it. For example, attend a meeting, or contact someone, or write a report, or buy something from the shop on the way home, or put out the rubbish bins….. If ultimately we don’t do what has been asked, requested, reminded etc then the communication in the first place has essentially failed.

There are of course many ways to repair things that go wrong in our communications. Our ability to communicate is what makes us great. We do it well, but we can also do it spectacularly badly. There are also so many reasons it can fail, from paying poor attention in the beginning, to not using the same language or not really appreciating the importance of what has been said. Sometimes it is instantly obvious when what we have said has not been well received or properly understood. Often however we may not realise and one of the big things that perhaps we need to remember is to check whether our communications have been a success or not. So before we go rushing off to ammend, improve or change the way we communicate, a good place to start would be to get some feedback on it in the first place. Is our communication an illusion, might we just not have bothered, or is it in fact spot on.

Discussion Starters – BINGO

Here’s one of the discussion starters that I sometimes use. It’s useful to get people talking to each other, and warms the group up a bit. Of course you can adapt the text.

Everyone needs to stand up and move around the room freely. The idea is for everyone to go round asking people in the workshop or session if they “own a pet” for example. If they say yes, you can write their name in the box and move on to find a different person who ticks a different box. If the person says no, then you can go around asking other people until you find someone who owns a pet. You can then get back together as a group and have a chat about the exercise and maybe learn some more interesting facts about each other.


Discussion starters – Discussion Carousel

Here’s another discussion starter for this morning – the discussion carousel.

It’s an easy way to discuss a subject or question, or just to get people talking.  You need people to sit down in two circles; an inner and outer circle facing each other. You can ask them a question and get them to talk to each other about it. After a short time the outer circle moves round so that they are then talking to a different partner. Try it, it’s a nice warm up!

For details have a look here: