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!).

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