If you ask people to describe communication in a sentence, they may tell you it’s about what you say when you are speaking. While this is partly true, it’s an incredible fact that only around 10% of our communication is verbal. It’s the other 90%- the non-verbal communication- that can make or break successful communication.
So what do I mean by non-verbal communication?
Nonverbal communication, or NVC, is the application of physical behaviour, expressions, and mannerisms to communicate nonverbally. It’s not WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say things - whether you make eye contact, if it’s too much or too little, your body language, posture and your gestures all add up to powerful statements which can either support- or contradict- the words that you are using. And remember, even when you are not talking, you are still communicating. NVC tells us if someone is being sincere, if they are truthful, if they are listening to us, and if they care.
Now, what makes this relationship of verbal to nonverbal communication particularly interesting is that our minds consist of two distinct parts - 10% which is the conscious and 90% which is the subconscious. This is interesting because the words we speak come from our conscious mind and all the nonverbal behaviour comes from the subconscious. And how telling that the percentages correlate- 10%-verbal/conscious mind and 90%-nonverbal / subconscious mind.
What does this mean to us? Well, often a mismatch between what is said and how the speaker is behaving can highlight a disparity in truth or sincerity. You’ve probably heard of recruiters using body language to “tell” if someone is being truthful in an interview situation, and indeed many clues as to mismatching communication can be observed.
Nonverbal communication comes direct from your subconscious, which is where emotions and feelings live. Therefore, when faced with a mismatch between what is aid and the nonverbal communication supporting the words, people often choose the NVC as the most “honest” response.
When NVC matches the verbal communication, then you are in a position to build trust, kinship, understanding and closeness. However, when there is a mismatch, this sows uncertainty, confusion and mistrust.
So let’s look at the key strands of NVC –
Facial expressions - as humans we spend a large proportion of communication time looking at others’ faces, and therefore it is probably the most important area of NVC to be aware of. Expressions are a universal language which effortlessly overcome verbal language barriers – when we think of expressions of fear, happiness, sadness, rage and others we can instantly recognise these. Silent films were played in every part of the world, because there was no language barrier - it was all about what audiences saw. When we recall mime artists, we are reminded that the human face can express countless feelings and emotions, often in very subtle ways. Eye contact also comes into play here, of course.
Eye contact – this is one of the most important as the majority of people are visual learners. There is an optimum balance of eye contact for good NVC- too much and it feels like a staring contest and can make people feel uneasy, too little and you may appear disinterested and disengaged. Eye contact is important to be able to “read” others, too.
Gestures – people have a range of gestures they use, often for emphasis of some sort. It’s important to gauge the way others respond to our gesturing. As well as the difference within cultures, there are huge gestural differences from other cultures, and this should be borne in mind- especially when on holiday or on business trips abroad. You may not mean to cause offence, but take care to ensure you don’t!
Deportment – the way that you carry yourself says a lot – how you walk into a room, how you sit, the way you hold your head, your posture and stance, all affect the impression that you radiate, and influences how others interpret what you say and what you do.
Physical space – it’s not just how someone stands, it’s where – are they too close, invading your personal space, or are they too far away, perhaps causing you to have to raise your voice or move towards them?
Physical contact - touch can be a very powerful NVC. It can suggest or emphasise a connection (a hug), support or affection (holding someone’s hand), aggression (pushing with force), warmth (a pat on the back) or lack of impact (a weak handshake). Cultural differences must again be brought into consideration here, especially when dealing with other genders than your own. People may prefer not to engage in Physical communication which involves touch as it may be against their religious beliefs and it is important to be aware and respectful of this. If in doubt, ask!
Sounds - this is not what you say, but how you say it. There are a number of strands to our understanding others- including how they say things – forcefully, loudly, softly, with emphasis on certain words, their intonation, together with the many different sounds and noises that we instinctively make during communication - by that I mean the “mm”-s and “uh-huh”-s and “ah”-s that infer some kind of understanding, agreement or questioning.
We must always remember the power of our communication - it can bring people closer to you, make people feel at ease and respected, or it can make others feel confused, hurt, alienated or upset. Much of communication is about interpretation, which you cannot often control. However, by learning to be in control of your own communication you can convey the correct message in the most effective way - and in doing so, better encourage the responses you wish to see from others.