It’s well known that good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship, whether it’s professional or personal. However, as important as the words you use, the body language you choose to express yourself silently screams louder. Thus it’s important to understand and use non-verbal communication effectively to express what you really mean and build better relationships.
According to a study by James Pennebaker, chair of the University of Texas at Austin’s Psychology department, people speak on average about 16,000 words per day. That’s roughly 667 words per hour! As you probably know, non-verbal communication is just as important but much more difficult to quantify. In this article I’ll explain a few key concepts to pay attention to and point to a few resources for more information.
Why is it important?
Body language signals contribute to a large part of our communication. Improving your body language will greatly improve your communication skills. Understanding body language can have a positive impact on your work and your relationships with people.
To keep things simple, the main components of body language to pay attention to are:
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
- Hand gestures
Expressive body language allows you to effectively convey your message and it is vital to ensure your words are congruent with your body language.
Establishing direct eye contact conveys interest to the person who is speaking.
If you are giving a presentation at work, establish eye contact with your audience. Avoid looking at the ceiling or the floor and focus on slowly shifting your gaze from one audience member to another. This will allow members of the audience to feel a connection with you as you speak.
Facial expressions allow you to convey your emotions. Interestingly, facial expressions are universal through different cultures. Ensure you convey the emotion you want people to pick up on.
Smiling often is great when talking to people. Smiling tells people you’re happy/ in a good mood. Smiling often creates a reciprocal effect in the people you’re smiling at, which causes them to smile too. According to one study, the act of smiling actually increases happiness in people.
Different people have different conversational comfort zones. What might seem close for one person might seem far for another. Culture also affects proximity in various ways, it is important to be vigilant and pay attention to whether the person you’re communicating with is uncomfortable.
Experiment with different zones of proximity while conversing and figure out the corresponding emotions that are conveyed effectively. Do you convince more people when you’re closer to them or much farther away from them? Experiment with, and master your proximity zones.
Aside from facial expressions, gestures are arguably the most powerful part of non-verbal communication. Used properly they can reinforce your verbal communication and add emphasis on important points.
Pay attention to the hand gestures you use. Broadening your vocabulary of hand gestures will give you a variety of options to choose from and utilize in conjunction with you verbal communication. This will make you a more effective communicator.
During conversation, you posture expresses your interest in the conversation. Rocking your body signals impatience and slouching conveys disengagement and boredom towards the conversation.
Show interest in people by improving your posture during conversations. Straighten you back and avoid swinging or nervous movement.
Tonality & Sounds
The tone of your voice adds a layer of meaning to your dialogue. Upward inflections in tone convey uncertainty and doubt while downward inflections in tone convey confidence and certitude. The sounds you make also let others know your feelings without speaking. Grunting, sighing and speaking in a high pitched voice send different signals to listeners. Aim to speak calmly and softly.
Speaking mostly in downward inflections will make you sound more confident. Aim to use upward inflections when asking questions only.
e.g. Notice the difference in conviction in the following two sentences:
- I think we should do this. (downward inflection on ‘this’)
- I think we should do this? (upward inflection on ‘this’)
It’s interesting to note the same gesture can mean different things in different cultures.
e.g. Nodding head from side-to-side
- In the some parts of the west this usually signals disagreement ‘no..no..’
- In the some parts of the east this means ‘mhmm.. go on..’
If you’d like more information on cultural differences on gestures click here.
If you’d like to dive deeper and discover more about body language, check out this comprehensive guide compiled by the West Side Toastmasters.
Mast, M. S. (2007). On the importance of nonverbal communication in the physician–patient interaction. Patient education and counseling, 67(3), 315-318.