We all rely on nonverbal communication. This is true whether playing a game of charades with your family or trying to show confidence during an important interview.
There’s a reason many of us prefer face-to-face communication over phone calls. Without seeing someone’s facial expressions, posture, and body language, it can be hard to read their feelings.
Nonverbal cues are just as important as verbalization. Nonverbal actions are key for communicating with and understanding everyone in your life.
Understanding every type of nonverbal communication can also help your career. You can show your confidence, passion, and expertise through small nonverbal communication cues. This is true whether leading a team meeting or delivering a presentation.
What’s nonverbal communication?
There are two primary forms of communication: verbal and nonverbal.
Verbal communication uses words to convey a message, whether that’s orally or in writing.
Posture, facial expressions, and eye contact are examples of nonverbal messages. We all use these cues in daily conversation, even involuntarily.
Nonverbal communication also involves the way we present ourselves to others. If you walk into a meeting with your back straight and your head held high, you exude power and confidence. You project nervousness and uncertainty if you’re slumped over with your eyes on the floor.
Experts believe that approximately 70% of all human communication is nonverbal, meaning we only deliver about 30% of our messages with words.
Austrian-American author and educator Peter Drucker had it right when he said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
We all perform and respond to nonverbal communication — and what we understand that no one says — daily.
Why is nonverbal communication so important?
Here are four reasons why understanding nonverbal messaging matters:
1. Builds trust and clarity
Nonverbal signals are far more subtle than words, but they’re no less important.
Facial expressions, body posture, and eye contact reveal the meaning behind what someone is saying, their true feelings, and if they’re listening to your half of the conversation. Someone may be able to feign interest with their words, but their body language will often reveal if they’re paying attention.
2. Bridges language gaps
Ever tried to interact with someone that didn’t speak your language? There was probably a lot of gesturing, facial expressions, and posturing — your nonverbal communication skills at work.
Outside of conversational cues, nonverbal behaviors are crucial to bridge language gaps. When two people don’t speak the same language, body language can help foster knowledge and understanding.
3. Encourages inclusivity
Everybody has different communication abilities. Learning nonverbal communication skills can help create a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
For example, people with hearing impairments might struggle to pick up on voice tone or speed. Understanding how to interpret and express nonverbal messages makes these individuals feel included and understood.
4. Leads to success
Non-verbal communication skills can help your career. For example, teachers with these skills see more success with their students. When talking with your boss, coworkers, and clients, you can use non-verbal communication to gain a competitive edge.
Effective communication requires nonverbal messaging. Understanding the types of nonverbal communication will help you connect with people in every area of your life.
10 types of nonverbal communication
Here are 10 of the most common forms of nonverbal communication:
1. Facial expressions
The look on an individual’s face is often the first thing we see. A smile, frown, or grimace tells a lot about their mood and how the subsequent conversation will go. Expressions of happiness, sadness, anger and fear are universal emotions and key forms of nonverbal communication.
Kinesics, or gestures, are conscious body movements like waving, pointing, and giving a thumbs up or down. One’s culture typically determines what gestures are socially acceptable and which are rude.
For example, in Westernized countries, glancing at your watch suggests, “I need to be somewhere.” In contrast, many Middle Eastern populations consider this rude. They are more likely to believe a conversation should continue until it ends naturally.
Paralinguistics (or vocalics) refers to the aspects of verbal communication that aren’t the words themselves. Your tone of voice, loudness, and pitch are common aspects of paralanguage.
This type of communication is powerful since altering your voice changes the meaning of a sentence. Think about all the ways you can use the phrase “I’m fine.” If you say it quietly, you might be feeling dejected, but if you say it forcefully, someone might detect your defensiveness.
4. Body language and posture
Crossing your legs or arms, a head nod, slouching, or sitting up straight are all examples of true body language. For example, you may have seen crime films focus on body language to further the narrative. It can also hint at what isn’t included in the dialogue.
However, this type of nonverbal communication is complex and quite subtle. Just because you observe a movement doesn’t guarantee you understand the meaning.
Proximity references how near something is. Human beings take personal space seriously. They also interpret physical distances in interactions differently.
Social and cultural expectations, personal preferences, and relationships all determine the suitable proximity. For example, if you’re in a relationship with someone, you’d expect to sit close together on the couch. On the other hand, you likely wouldn’t sit that close to a coworker.
Proxemics is an important part of interpersonal communication. Noticing when to adjust your closeness for each situation ensures you’re not making people uncomfortable.
Scientists focused on proximity biases in North America have grouped expected space as follows:
- Intimate space: Close physical contact up to 18 inches of space, typically shared between people in an intimate relationship.
- Personal space: Between 18 inches to 4 feet depending on whether you’re speaking to a stranger, casual acquaintance, or close friend.
- Social space: 4 –12 feet of space provided in social settings, like a shared office space or the distance between a presenter and their audience.
- Public space: 12 feet or more, typically observed in shopping malls and airports.
It may sound cliche, but it’s true that “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Our eye contact is a massive factor in nonverbal communication because it can give clues to how we feel.
When we’re scared, our pupils dilate due to a surge in adrenaline. When something excites us, we blink rapidly. Maintaining eye contact generally means that someone is comfortable and telling the truth. In contrast, avoiding eye contact might suggest that they’re nervous or hiding something.
Communication by touch is called haptics. Touch is powerful because our emotions drive it. Our social class, gender, and, of course, our upbringing all determine how we respond to touch. Women generally use touch to convey care and concern, while men are more likely to convey control.
Psychologist Harry Harlow made a career in studying the impacts of touch on rhesus monkeys. Monkeys who were raised without physical contact from their mothers struggled with social interactions. We share this affect with our ancestors — physical contact at a young age improves our social skills when we’re older.
Your appearance is another thing people notice immediately. Your hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, piercings, and even body shape give off cues. This can encourage snap judgments from other people. There’s a reason your mother always told you to “dress to impress” for a presentation at school or a job interview.
Chronemics is the role time plays during communication. How people interpret time can be personal, cultural, or have to do with their power or status.
Have you ever waited around for a friend to show up for an event? Maybe you felt annoyed or disrespected by their laziness or lack of time management. Now imagine if your boss showed up 15 minutes late to a meeting. You might be more understanding of their busy schedule.
10. Physiological responses
Your body naturally sends out nonverbal signals that are nearly impossible to control. This includes nervous sweating, blushing, or tearing up.
5 tips for understanding nonverbal communication
The more you practice reading cues, the better you’ll become. Some things you can do include:
1. Pay attention to inconsistencies
Nonverbal communication can either reinforce or discourage what someone is saying. Do a person’s facial expressions match their words? Their tone of voice? If they do, then great.
They’re most likely being honest about whatever they’re saying. If it’s the opposite, they may be trying to hide how they truly feel.
2. Look at nonverbal signals as a whole
If you’re only paying attention to someone’s posture, you might miss a whole bunch of other clues. Nonverbal signals work in tandem to generate a complete picture of another human being.
3. Trust your instincts
Go with your gut. Your instincts are there to help guide and protect you about what someone is saying and what they truly mean.
4. Practice emotional awareness
Emotional intelligence is a significant part of navigating relationships. Being emotionally aware helps you interpret people more accurately.
When you can read other people’s emotions and unspoken messages, you can reciprocate communication by responding in a way that shows you understand and care.
5. Don’t make assumptions
Nonverbal communication is nuanced and involves personal and cultural meaning. Don’t assume a person’s tone or body language is definitively what you think it is.
Someone might avoid eye contact because they’re shy, not deceptive. They may slouch because they’re stressed out, not doubtful of their work. If you can’t read the person’s body language, ask them how they feel.
How to improve nonverbal communication
Nonverbal communication is a necessary factor at home, work, and beyond. Often, these signals occur rapidly. Interpreting or noticing all of them can be challenging during a single conversation.
Fortunately, there’s always room to improve upon these skills. To do so, try focusing on the below.
When we’re stressed, we can’t communicate as effectively. How you’re feeling rubs off on others, too. Take some deep breaths to relax and refocus. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be able to read people more accurately.
Pay attention to your behaviors
To learn to communicate more effectively and develop stronger emotional awareness, you must understand your nonverbal communication habits. Learning your cues will also increase self-awareness. You’ll be more in tune with your feelings and be better able to express yourself.
Think before you act
Do you raise your voice when stressed or avoid eye contact when nervous? A great way to adjust nonverbal behaviors you don’t want is to think before you act. Notice situations that cause problematic behaviors and practice taking a deep breath before reacting.
Examples of nonverbal communication
Here are a few ways to practice your nonverbal communication skills personally and professionally:
In the workplace
Tone: Use your voice to show excitement, positivity, and contentment with your work. Managers want demonstrably engaged workers. Plus, your positivity will likely rub off on coworkers.
Distance: Maintain an appropriate distance from coworkers to respect their boundaries. Remember, an office is a professional space. Even if you enjoy comfortable work relationships, you should always respect someone’s physical boundaries.
Posture: You got the job. You belong here. Your ideas matter. Stand up straight and speak with your head held high.
In your personal life
Distance: Leaning in when your loved one speaks shows you’re actively listening.
Concentration: Put away distractions like video games or phones when spending time with loved ones. This shows you’re paying attention and offering them quality time.
Touch: Hugs, hand-holding, and other forms of physical touch foster intimacy between consensual parties.
Enjoy better interactions
Nonverbal communication plays a prominent role in our personal and professional lives. Person-to-person contact will almost always involve some type of nonverbal communication.
Now, you know how to interpret nonverbal cues and express yourself more authentically through them. Congratulations on beginning the journey toward healthier, happier interactions.