Communication is not just about what comes out of our mouths. In fact, what we don’t say — our body language and use of silence — often sends a louder message than the words we use or the intonation of our voice. So being aware of, and practicing, our non-verbal communication skills are critical parts of overall interpersonal communications.
There are a number of studies that tell us how a listener pays more attention to body language than verbal messages. This implies that if one’s body language is inconsistent with the verbal message being sent (e.g. frowning while saying you’re happy), the verbal message is less credible. In fact, such inconsistency can even nullify the verbal message, and result in it being perceived as a lie. At the very least, inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal communication can result in confusion, stress and possibly even conflict.
What does body language look like — what do you need to look out for?
- Eye Contact: Eye contact is seen as one of the most important aspects of non-verbal communication. Steady eye contact often indicates attention to the person one is in conversation with, as well as a willingness and sincerity to connect. The lack of eye connect can be viewed as defensiveness, nervousness and/or social withdrawal. It has been said that our eyes are the “windows to our soul”, and that one can tell if an individual is happy, sad, or angry simply by looking at their eyes.
- Facial Expression: It is believed that there are universal facial expressions for different emotions, most of which have an evolutionary basis. For example, anger is often indicated by sharp stares, crunched eyebrows and the baring of teeth. Sadness, on the other hand, can be denoted by teary eyes and drooping lips. Note though that the expression and perception of emotions tend to vary from culture to culture.
- Posture: The way we sit down, stand up or even walk can also communicate a message. For example, slumping in a chair is often considered as a sign of inattention and/or disrespect. Walking with one’s head and shoulders down can be interpreted as a sign of nervousness or low self-esteem. Withdrawing to a fetal position can also be indicative of fear and/or depression. The puffing of one’s chest has been traditionally interpreted as pride.
- Specific Movements: There are specific movements that have traditionally been associated with certain messages. For example, nodding is generally a sign of assent or agreement. Raising clenched hands are interpreted as a sign of angry challenge. Stomping our feet can be an indication of frustration.
- Physical Contact: The way we physically interact with other people is also a part of body language. Shaking of hands, hugging, slapping, punching are forms of communication. The same can be said about our physical closeness and distance with another person. Standing too close to a person can be considered as an invasion of personal boundaries, while standing too far from a person can be construed as avoidance.
Our non-verbal communication tends to be unconscious. It can be influenced by many things, including past habits, life experiences, personal models, culture and hidden thoughts and feelings. Because body language is often outside of awareness, most have no idea what exactly they are communicating to other people. Being made more aware of how body language influences our communication and learning how to control it can go a long way to reducing misunderstandings, stress and conflict in our interpersonal relationships.
John Whitehead, coaches individuals and organizations in becoming more effective by helping them improve their interpersonal communications, emotional intelligence and resiliency.
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