What Does Your Nonverbal Language Reveal About Your Communication Style?

POSTED: Sep. 07, 2016

One of the most powerful communication tools you possess is your nonverbal language, or body language. Yet all too often people are too busy to pay attention to what their actions say about them. What others see/feel/experience in action guides their interpretation of your personal style. Be mindful of the delicate interplay between verbal and nonverbal language. The key to successful communication is to ensure that your verbal and nonverbal language are in alignment and consistent.

A few years ago, I coached a corporate client on her communication style. I’ll call her Nancy. Part of my coaching process included interviewing several of Nancy’s co-workers to understand her better. I quickly discovered a common thread throughout the interviews. Here’s what was happening:

Nancy was a very powerful female executive. When she led meetings, she wore glasses and leaned forward. She was quite efficient moving through an agenda. Towards the end of the meeting, she would remove her glasses, throw them on to the table, lean back in her chair, cross her arms, and ask the question, “Does anyone have anything else to add?” What do you think happened? No one offered anything. Surprised? Co-workers interpreted Nancy’s nonverbal language as this: She was done with the meeting. She really didn’t care if anyone had anything to offer because that’s what her nonverbal language communicated. When I shared this story with Nancy, she was shocked. She had no idea that she was sending mixed messages. Her verbal language didn’t align with her nonverbal language. She said one thing, yet her physical behavior communicated the exact opposite. After learning this, she readjusted her behavior. She remained leaning forward, glasses on and arms open, which meant she was still engaged with the group.

Nonverbal language is considered as the most honest form of communication because the body rarely lies. When you say one thing and do another (when your verbal and nonverbal language are not in alignment), people will believe the nonverbal first. When your verbal language and nonverbal language are in alignment, you are in accord.

When psychologist Albert Mehrabian studied attitude several decades ago, he found that 93% of the attitude that is communicated comes from tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions and body language. Only 7% of attitude is communicated with words. The old adage, “Actions speak louder than words” rings true in this case. It’s not just what you are saying, it’s also how you are saying it.

Knowing this, what does your nonverbal language say about you? Is it working for or against you? Is your verbal and nonverbal language consistent or are you sending mixed messages? How you silently communicate reveals to others if you want to do business with them. It also shows them how interested you are in learning about and fulfilling their needs. We communicate nonverbally in six different ways. Let’s take a closer look at these nonverbal communication tools that have great impact.

  1. Facial Expressions/Eye Contact. With about 100 muscles in your face, you have the capacity to express more than 60 emotions, with six primary emotions such as fear, joy, love, sadness, surprise and anger at the core. Think about that. One of the most powerful parts of your face that you use to communicate is your eyes. They say, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” People who master eye contact reap the rewards. Consistent, engaging eye contact positions you as confident, at ease and interested. Use a relaxed, steady gaze and be careful not to stare at the other person. Pupil to pupil eye contact is the most intimate form of communication. Looking directly at someone with sincerity reveals that you are open and engaging in your communication style. People whose eyes dart around as if they are visually chasing a fly in the room lead us to wonder what they are hiding. If you are shy and have a hard time looking directly into another person’s eyes at first, then pick a “safe” spot on the face to look at – on the bridge of the nose or the tip of the eyebrow, which is close enough to the eyes to adjust your comfort level. Over time as you become at ease with direct eye contact, it will feel more natural to you.
  1. Body Stance/Posture. Your level of confidence is communicated through your body stance and posture. Your posture communicates if you are confident, uncomfortable, shy or arrogant. What does your posture say about you? Stand erect, shoulders back, chin up and chest open, with your weight evenly distributed to both feet. Do not slouch. Slouching symbolizes indifference or weakness. On the flip side, don’t be too puffed up or people will think you are egotistical and self-important.
  1. Gestures. Gestures can either support or substitute verbal language. They can also conflict with or detract from what is being said. Be aware of what hand gestures you are using. If you have a tendency to over-use your hands (too much or repetitive gesture), your gestures could be distracting your message.
  1. Movement. How you move through a space communicates your mental state. Are you in a hurry, not feeling well, not interested or preoccupied thinking about something else? Those emotions show. A woman in one of my seminars (I’ll call her Jessica) shared a story with me. One day, a co-worker told Jessica in confidence that the department assistant, Stacy, thought she didn’t like her. “I love Stacy!” Jessica said. “Why does she think I don’t like her?” Her friend shared what Stacy had told her. Every morning when Jessica arrived at work, she walked into the department, briefcase in one hand, coffee in the other and rushed to her desk. Stacy would say, “Good morning!” every day, yet Jessica didn’t hear her because she had too much on her mind. Thankfully, Jessica’s co-worker was smart to share with her what Stacy had said. The next morning, Jessica stopped and acknowledged Stacy with a “Good morning” in return. Sometimes we are so mentally preoccupied or too busy doing our thing, we don’t realize how others are interpreting our movement.
  1. Objects/Attire. The objects that you surround yourself with communicate who you are. Those objects can be your attire, office décor, even the car you drive. They are all part of your exterior image. What people “see” helps to define who you are as a person. Wearing a stained tie, having untrimmed nails, wearing a wrinkled blouse, all send messages about you to other people. As a professional, you want to look your best.
  1. Silence. Silence is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. Unfortunately, many of us, either in conversations with colleagues or in presentations, are compelled to fill every second with sound. Think of how much more powerful President John F. Kennedy’s historical “Ask not” speech was because he used silence. “Ask not (pause) what your country can do for you (pause). Ask what you (pause) can do for your country.” The effective use of silence in the form of pausing allowed the audience to absorb his message. Most Americans feel uncomfortable with silence. It feels awkward to us. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. The only way to get over that uneasiness is to raise your comfort level and embrace silence. Use silence to add influence to conversations or client presentations. Silence does several things for you – it gives you time to collect your thoughts and stay on track, it lets the listener digest your message, it wraps a statement in power and it gives you some extra time to “read” a client’s response.

Nonverbal Language in the International Arena

American workplaces have become quite diverse, with employees representing just about every corner of the globe. Nonverbal communication exists in all cultures around the world, however, meaning is not universal. Nonverbal cues can mean different things in different cultures.

Hand gestures, for instance, are not universal across all cultures. A favorite book that I recommend to clients who work internationally is Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands by Morrison, Conaway & Borden. The book identifies how to do business in more than 60 countries around the world. While the book was written for Americans traveling and working abroad, it is also a helpful resource when dealing with co-workers from other countries.

From a global perspective, know that throughout Asia, averted eye contact is the norm. I learned this more than 25 years ago when I travelled to Japan on a trade mission. Our Japanese business consultant told us that in the Japanese culture, averted eye contact is a sign of respect. He told us not to be concerned when our Japanese business clients looked away when meeting with us. He reminded us that our American direct eye contact is considered arrogant and unacceptable behavior in Japan. The best lesson I learned through my business travel abroad is to respect the culture that you are visiting.

Know the various cultures of your work team and know a country’s culture before you work or travel abroad.

As you can see, some of the most powerful messages you send are not spoken. Be sure you are using the right “silent language” to communicate with others.