What is nonverbal communication, and why does it matter?
Medically Reviewed By: Stephanie Deaver, LCSW
You’ve probably heard about the importance of your body language. There is a lot of information thrown around about this, especially when it comes to job interviews. However, it’s often unclear what it really is and why it’s important. Below you’ll find the answer to what nonverbal communication is and why it’s so important for you to understand.
In the past, there have been many mentions of a study showing that only seven percent of communication is verbal. While this “rule” has largely been disproven, there’s still a lot to be said for the importance of nonverbal communication. In many cases, it will not remove the need for verbal communication, but when used correctly, it can help convey a more explicit message. Below, you’ll see more information on why nonverbal communication can be so beneficial.
What is nonverbal communication?
Put merely, nonverbal communication is precisely like it sounds. It is the way that people communicate without using words. This can include things like:
Posture – The way that you hold your body or the way that you stand can communicate messages to other people. For example, if you are very interested in a conversation, you may find that you lean in towards the person that’s talking. Reclining back in your chair can show that you are comfortable and relaxed. If you are fidgeting and restless, it could indicate that you’re nervous or that you are impatient.
Eye contact – The amount of eye contact that you make with people can also communicate with them. For example, if you are intently listening to something that someone is saying, it can help to make eye contact with them, so they know that you’re paying attention. However, holding eye contact for too long and not looking away can cause people to feel uncomfortable.
Facial expressions – There are many ways that your facial expressions can communicate the emotions that you’re feeling or the things that you’re thinking to the people around you. Smiling can let people know that you are happy or friendly. Frowning communicates that you may be sad or concerned. Furrowing your eyebrows can make you look angry or like you’re deep in thought.
Gestures – The hand gestures that you make can also add to the conversation that you’re having. Conversely, they can allow you to communicate with someone without having to say anything at all. For example, you can point directions out to people, or you can use your hand gestures to add to the message that you’re trying to communicate. For example, when using American Sign Language, the way you gesture can communicate the emotion that goes along with the words that you are signing.
Space – The amount of space that you leave between you and someone else can communicate your feelings as well. When two people sit very closely together with little space between them, it can show that they have an attraction to one another or that they’re in a close relationship. Alternately, if a person purposefully puts a lot of space between them and someone else, it can show that they’re not comfortable with the other person.
Touch – Physical touch can communicate all kinds of emotions. You can show compassion and empathy for someone by giving them a hug when they are sad. You can give a high-five to someone to show that you support them and are celebrating with them. Or, you may notice that small children hit one another to show their frustration and anger with a situation or person.
Why is nonverbal communication important?
While the majority of communication may be verbal, nonverbal communication can work to support the message that you are trying to convey. Here are some ways that nonverbal communication is so important:
It helps people understand what you’re saying
The use of nonverbal communication can be used to help people have a better understanding of the message you’re trying to share. For example, if you are saying something important and you are using serious facial expressions and direct gestures, it can help them to understand the importance of what you’re communicating. Or, doing things like smiling and nodding your head approvingly can help communicate that you agree with what someone is saying.
It can show confidence
One example that is often given in conversations about nonverbal communication is how you can use your body language to convey confidence during job interviews. By keeping your shoulders back, your head up, and making eye contact with another person, you portray that you are a confident person. Even if you’re not feeling particularly confident at that moment, you can communicate that message to someone else by your nonverbal communication.
It helps you make a good first impression
It has been found that people make their first impression of you in the first seven seconds after meeting you. You may not have been able to verbally say anything in those first seven seconds of meeting someone. This means that they are making their judgment of you off of your body language and nonverbal cues. In some situations, it can be difficult to overcome a bad first impression. This is another reason why it’s important to pay attention to what you’re communicating non-verbally to others.
Learning to read nonverbal communication in others
It’s important to pay attention to what you’re communicating to others through your nonverbal communication. However, it’s also important that you learn how to read the nonverbal signals that you’re getting from others as well.
When people are talking to you, look for nonverbal cues as you listen. See if their facial expressions are communicating the same message that their words are. Pay attention to the position of their body and the eye contact that they’re making or not making with you. All of these things can help you get a clearer picture of the message that they are trying to convey to you.
Learning to read nonverbal communication can also help protect you in conversations where the other person may be trying to take advantage of you. By watching their nonverbal cues, you may be able to pick up on inconsistencies in what they’re saying to you.
How to improve nonverbal communication
The good news is that just like learning to talk, nonverbal communication is a skill that you can learn and develop throughout your life. If you have had trouble with your body language in the past, here are some tips that can help you improve in this area.
Think about your physical reactions
It’s helpful to pay attention to the physical reaction that you have as a result of your emotions. If you are under stress, you may not want to communicate that to the person that you’re talking to. However, you may scrunch your forehead or hold your body a certain way when you’re under stress. Learning how to recognize what your natural physical responses are can help you learn how to catch and correct them before communicating something that you don’t want to communicate with others.
Get in-touch with your emotions
Getting in touch with your emotions can also help you to control your nonverbal responses. It’s hard to choose what the right body language is if you have a hard time understanding what emotion you’re experiencing at any given time.
The basic emotions include happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Learning how to recognize these symptoms in different situations can help you learn how to better control your nonverbal communication.
Practice In front of a mirror
If you haven’t really thought about what you’re communicating through your body language and nonverbal communication before, you may be unaware of the signals that you are sending to other people. You may find it helpful to practice important conversations or messages in front of a mirror so you can see what you’re communicating non-verbally.
You can practice working through situations that happened to you regularly to watch what your responses are. This can help you look for areas that you may need to tweak to improve your communication efforts.
Work with a therapist
If you continue to struggle with your communication skills, you may benefit from getting some outside help. Talking with a therapist can help you improve your verbal and nonverbal communication skills.
A licensed therapist can help you learn to recognize inconsistencies that you have in your communication and what strategies you can use to improve it. They can also help you recognize nonverbal cues that you use that you may not be catching on your own. If you are only able to do virtual therapy, like that offered at BetterHelp, the use of video sessions can still help a therapist observe your nonverbal communication.
The way that you communicate with others, verbally and non-verbally, can play a large role in the relationships and situations in your life. If you are struggling in this area, you will most likely find it well worth the time that you invest in making improvements**.