Good communication is the foundation of successful relationships, both personal and professional. But we communicate with much more than words. Most of the messages we send other people are nonverbal. Nonverbal communication includes our facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, and tone of voice. The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication, or body language, is a powerful tool that can help you connect with others, express what you really mean, navigate challenging situations, and build better relationships. What is nonverbal communication and body language?
Nonverbal communication, or body language, is a vital form of communication—a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts our true feelings and intentions in any given moment, and clues us in to the feelings and intentions of those around us. When we interact with others, we continuously give and receive wordless signals. All of our nonverbal behaviors—the gestures we make, the way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, how much eye contact we make—send strong messages. These messages don’t stop when you stop speaking either. Even when you’re silent, you’re still communicating nonverbally. Oftentimes, what we say and what we communicate through body language are two totally different things. When faced with these mixed signals, the listener has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message, and, in most cases, they’re going to choose nonverbal. Why nonverbal communication matters
The way you listen, look, move, and react tells the other person whether or not you care, if you’re being truthful, and how well you’re listening. When your nonverbal signals match up with the words you’re saying, they increase trust, clarity, and rapport. When they don’t, they generate tension, mistrust, and confusion. If you want to communicate better in all areas of your life, it’s important to become more sensitive to body language and other nonverbal cues, so you can be more in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others. You also need to be aware of the signals you’re sending off, so you can be sure that the messages you’re sending are what you really want to communicate. Types of nonverbal communication and body language
There are many different types of nonverbal communication. Together, the following nonverbal signals and cues communicate your interest and investment in others.
The human face is extremely expressive, able to express countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across cultures.
Body movements and posture
Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up, or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world. This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance, and subtle movements.
Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. However, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation.
Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility, or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response.
We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a firm handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring pat on the back, a patronizing pat on the head, or a controlling grip on your arm.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was standing too close and invading your space? We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the culture, the situation, and the closeness of the relationship. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy, aggression, dominance, or affection.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words. Things they pay attention to include your timing and pace, how loud you speak, your tone and inflection, and sounds that convey understanding, such as “ahh” and “uh-huh.” Think about how tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection, or confidence. How nonverbal communication can go wrong
It takes more than words to create satisfying, strong relationships. Nonverbal communication has a huge impact on the quality of your personal and professional relationships. What you communicate through your body language and nonverbal signals affects how others see you, how well they like and respect you, and whether or not they trust you. Unfortunately, many people send confusing or negative nonverbal signals without even knowing it. When this happens, both connection and trust are damaged.
Eye contact: An introduction to its role in communication
Explore eye contact’s vital role during conversation and suggestions for developing this skill. This is the first in a series of articles about effective eye contact during interactions.
Posted on November 28, 2012 by Jodi Schulz, Michigan State University Extension
Some are blue and some are green. Some are brown and others hazel. That’s right: the subject is eyes, but more importantly than the color of someone’s eyes is what their eyes are saying. Not only do our see for us, but they are also a mode of communication. A person can communicate with their eyes and never say a word. Our eyes show emotion or interest and if thought about too much, making eye contact can become awkward and uncomfortable.
Have you thought about eye contact as a skill? As adults, using appropriate eye contact can be difficult. What about youth? Eye contact can be tied to so many life skills that it’s important for our youth to practice and learn about eye contact as a communication skill. Consider for a moment using eye contact to show empathy, concern for others, to manage feelings or to help with communication. Those are all life skills that youth will grow and develop as they mature into successful adults.
Now, let’s dig a little deeper. Eye contact during a conversation is vital. It shows attentiveness and interest in what is being said. Eye contact is similar to a conversation; it goes back and forth between those individuals who are engaged in a discussion, dialogue, or chat. But remember, just as maintaining eye contact is important, be sure not to stare! It can be easy to get caught up in a story that is being told, waiting for the next joke to be said, or listening so intently for the next word that may be spoken that you forget what you’re eye contact might be saying. Staring can create a feeling of uneasiness for both the person talking and the person listening. It’s hard to find that balance of having enough eye contact, but not too much.
Don’t worry if eye contact is something you struggle with. It’s likely that everyone will have a conversation sometime where they can identify some characteristics of odd eye contact, as well as characteristics of really great eye contact. Remember to learn from that. Whichever extreme you experience take a mental note of what you liked and didn’t like.
According to Conversation Aid, there are a few points that can summarize the importance of eye contact:
- Eye contact opens and closes communication
- Increased eye contact is associated with credibility and dominance
- Lack of contact and blinking are interpreted as submissive
- High status people are looked at, and look more while talking than listening
- Stares communicate hostility
This article is the first in a series of articles that will examine eye contact in communication. Look for a future article about effective eye contact during presentations.
This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit http://expert.msue.msu.edu, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).