Nonverbal Communication

Reviewed Apr 18, 2015

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Summary

  • Don’t rely on “body language” alone
  • Read the total message

“Body language” is often portrayed as a window into a person’s true thoughts or feelings. Many books and business magazine articles offer advice on how to translate the gestures, facial expressions and posture of others. Check out some examples: One author explains that if a person casually rubs her eye with one finger, it means she feels unsure about what you’re saying. Another author points out that crossed legs signal disagreement.

Actually, interpreting nonverbal communication isn’t that simple, some experts say. Consider the whole message—including nonverbal, verbal and environmental cues—when communicating with others.

Don’t rely on “body language” alone

The media has mythologized body language, notes Curtis LeBaron, Ph.D., a professor at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business, who specializes in organizational communication. “That is unfortunate, irresponsible and very misleading,” LeBaron says. Publications purporting to help people link nonverbal cues with specific thoughts or emotions actually just offer crude interpretations, he explains. “What any one hand gesture means has a lot to do with what the person is saying, what other people have said and done previously and what’s going on in that situation.”

Relying on nonverbal communication to “mind read” can cause serious misinterpretations. In any situation, people should consider:

  • their own nonverbal behaviors (LeBaron prefers the term “visible behaviors”) and other participants’ nonverbal behaviors
  • the content of the conversation and the impact of their words on participants
  • the setting in which the communication takes place
  • the material resources available

LeBaron teaches up to 150 MBA students every year about human interactions. As part of his classwork, LeBaron videotapes students’ group meetings and later asks them to analyze their vocal and visible behaviors. The process helps demonstrate how all of the elements in a situation affect communication. Increasing awareness of those interactions is important for people in leadership positions, negotiators, mediators, salespeople, and even those who want to improve their personal relationships.

The role of nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication includes facial expression, tones of voice, eye contact, gestures, touch, spatial arrangements and expressive movement, among others, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Clinical psychologist and author Clare Albright notes the importance of paying attention to others’ nonverbal signals. Albright offers additional tips for increasing your awareness of nonverbal communication:

  • “Tune in” to your audience. Look for signs that indicate other people’s interest levels, and change your behavior if you need to.
  • Stop and ask people what their nonverbal behavior means if you’re not sure.
  • Make an effort to notice the effects your words have on others.
  • Express gratitude when your audience seems responsive.
  • Most importantly, orient your body toward other people in appropriate ways when you’re communicating, LeBaron says. An effective leader, for example, points his face, eyes and body in the direction of the people he’s talking to. On the other hand, an ineffective leader might turn his back on a group or focus on something else, like shuffling papers.

Verbal communication

Of course, talk plays an essential role in communication. “Rapport building is important” in conversations, LeBaron says. “We have ways of showing people we’re on the same page.” LeBaron emphasizes that responses play as big a role as the initial comment—that all participants in a conversation contribute to its meaning. Be aware of what you say and how you react to what others say. Take the example of a supervisor who wants to fire a “problem” employee. Problems are never “individual,” LeBaron says, they’re interactive. Both the comments of the employee and the responses of the supervisor have contributed to the situation. “If a solution’s going to happen, it’s got to happen together.”

Environment

The environment and resources available in any situation also affects communication. “The material environments we inhabit constrain our interactions or provide resources and support for our interactions.” If you’re having trouble getting a point across or coming to an agreement with other people on an important issue, consider your environment. Physical structures can influence behavior. For instance, a team sitting in a small room at a long rectangular table might have more trouble seeing each other and talking as a group than a team sitting in a large room at a round table.

But LeBaron also notes that our ability to use material resources depends on our skills with nonverbal and verbal communication. He cites a study he conducted among architects, in which he found that those who used their hands to explain spatial arrangements to their clients and paid attention to clients’ body movements were better able to draw successful plans.

Read the total message

To avoid misunderstandings and keep conversations on track, pay attention to both the content and conditions of any conversation. That includes physical, emotional and behavioral signals, according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. “Visible behaviors are extremely important,” LeBaron says, “But they become meaningful and interpretable through coordination with talk, and through their situational occurrence within a social and material setting.” 

Resource

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2d ed.) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. McGraw-Hill, 2011.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Curtis D. LeBaron, PhD; About.com, www.about.com; Brigham Young University, www.byu.edu; University of Colorado at Boulder, www.colorado.edu/; The University of California, Santa Cruz, www.ucsc.edu

Summary

  • Don’t rely on “body language” alone
  • Read the total message

“Body language” is often portrayed as a window into a person’s true thoughts or feelings. Many books and business magazine articles offer advice on how to translate the gestures, facial expressions and posture of others. Check out some examples: One author explains that if a person casually rubs her eye with one finger, it means she feels unsure about what you’re saying. Another author points out that crossed legs signal disagreement.

Actually, interpreting nonverbal communication isn’t that simple, some experts say. Consider the whole message—including nonverbal, verbal and environmental cues—when communicating with others.

Don’t rely on “body language” alone

The media has mythologized body language, notes Curtis LeBaron, Ph.D., a professor at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business, who specializes in organizational communication. “That is unfortunate, irresponsible and very misleading,” LeBaron says. Publications purporting to help people link nonverbal cues with specific thoughts or emotions actually just offer crude interpretations, he explains. “What any one hand gesture means has a lot to do with what the person is saying, what other people have said and done previously and what’s going on in that situation.”

Relying on nonverbal communication to “mind read” can cause serious misinterpretations. In any situation, people should consider:

  • their own nonverbal behaviors (LeBaron prefers the term “visible behaviors”) and other participants’ nonverbal behaviors
  • the content of the conversation and the impact of their words on participants
  • the setting in which the communication takes place
  • the material resources available

LeBaron teaches up to 150 MBA students every year about human interactions. As part of his classwork, LeBaron videotapes students’ group meetings and later asks them to analyze their vocal and visible behaviors. The process helps demonstrate how all of the elements in a situation affect communication. Increasing awareness of those interactions is important for people in leadership positions, negotiators, mediators, salespeople, and even those who want to improve their personal relationships.

The role of nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication includes facial expression, tones of voice, eye contact, gestures, touch, spatial arrangements and expressive movement, among others, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Clinical psychologist and author Clare Albright notes the importance of paying attention to others’ nonverbal signals. Albright offers additional tips for increasing your awareness of nonverbal communication:

  • “Tune in” to your audience. Look for signs that indicate other people’s interest levels, and change your behavior if you need to.
  • Stop and ask people what their nonverbal behavior means if you’re not sure.
  • Make an effort to notice the effects your words have on others.
  • Express gratitude when your audience seems responsive.
  • Most importantly, orient your body toward other people in appropriate ways when you’re communicating, LeBaron says. An effective leader, for example, points his face, eyes and body in the direction of the people he’s talking to. On the other hand, an ineffective leader might turn his back on a group or focus on something else, like shuffling papers.

Verbal communication

Of course, talk plays an essential role in communication. “Rapport building is important” in conversations, LeBaron says. “We have ways of showing people we’re on the same page.” LeBaron emphasizes that responses play as big a role as the initial comment—that all participants in a conversation contribute to its meaning. Be aware of what you say and how you react to what others say. Take the example of a supervisor who wants to fire a “problem” employee. Problems are never “individual,” LeBaron says, they’re interactive. Both the comments of the employee and the responses of the supervisor have contributed to the situation. “If a solution’s going to happen, it’s got to happen together.”

Environment

The environment and resources available in any situation also affects communication. “The material environments we inhabit constrain our interactions or provide resources and support for our interactions.” If you’re having trouble getting a point across or coming to an agreement with other people on an important issue, consider your environment. Physical structures can influence behavior. For instance, a team sitting in a small room at a long rectangular table might have more trouble seeing each other and talking as a group than a team sitting in a large room at a round table.

But LeBaron also notes that our ability to use material resources depends on our skills with nonverbal and verbal communication. He cites a study he conducted among architects, in which he found that those who used their hands to explain spatial arrangements to their clients and paid attention to clients’ body movements were better able to draw successful plans.

Read the total message

To avoid misunderstandings and keep conversations on track, pay attention to both the content and conditions of any conversation. That includes physical, emotional and behavioral signals, according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. “Visible behaviors are extremely important,” LeBaron says, “But they become meaningful and interpretable through coordination with talk, and through their situational occurrence within a social and material setting.” 

Resource

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2d ed.) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. McGraw-Hill, 2011.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Curtis D. LeBaron, PhD; About.com, www.about.com; Brigham Young University, www.byu.edu; University of Colorado at Boulder, www.colorado.edu/; The University of California, Santa Cruz, www.ucsc.edu

Summary

  • Don’t rely on “body language” alone
  • Read the total message

“Body language” is often portrayed as a window into a person’s true thoughts or feelings. Many books and business magazine articles offer advice on how to translate the gestures, facial expressions and posture of others. Check out some examples: One author explains that if a person casually rubs her eye with one finger, it means she feels unsure about what you’re saying. Another author points out that crossed legs signal disagreement.

Actually, interpreting nonverbal communication isn’t that simple, some experts say. Consider the whole message—including nonverbal, verbal and environmental cues—when communicating with others.

Don’t rely on “body language” alone

The media has mythologized body language, notes Curtis LeBaron, Ph.D., a professor at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business, who specializes in organizational communication. “That is unfortunate, irresponsible and very misleading,” LeBaron says. Publications purporting to help people link nonverbal cues with specific thoughts or emotions actually just offer crude interpretations, he explains. “What any one hand gesture means has a lot to do with what the person is saying, what other people have said and done previously and what’s going on in that situation.”

Relying on nonverbal communication to “mind read” can cause serious misinterpretations. In any situation, people should consider:

  • their own nonverbal behaviors (LeBaron prefers the term “visible behaviors”) and other participants’ nonverbal behaviors
  • the content of the conversation and the impact of their words on participants
  • the setting in which the communication takes place
  • the material resources available

LeBaron teaches up to 150 MBA students every year about human interactions. As part of his classwork, LeBaron videotapes students’ group meetings and later asks them to analyze their vocal and visible behaviors. The process helps demonstrate how all of the elements in a situation affect communication. Increasing awareness of those interactions is important for people in leadership positions, negotiators, mediators, salespeople, and even those who want to improve their personal relationships.

The role of nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication includes facial expression, tones of voice, eye contact, gestures, touch, spatial arrangements and expressive movement, among others, according to researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Clinical psychologist and author Clare Albright notes the importance of paying attention to others’ nonverbal signals. Albright offers additional tips for increasing your awareness of nonverbal communication:

  • “Tune in” to your audience. Look for signs that indicate other people’s interest levels, and change your behavior if you need to.
  • Stop and ask people what their nonverbal behavior means if you’re not sure.
  • Make an effort to notice the effects your words have on others.
  • Express gratitude when your audience seems responsive.
  • Most importantly, orient your body toward other people in appropriate ways when you’re communicating, LeBaron says. An effective leader, for example, points his face, eyes and body in the direction of the people he’s talking to. On the other hand, an ineffective leader might turn his back on a group or focus on something else, like shuffling papers.

Verbal communication

Of course, talk plays an essential role in communication. “Rapport building is important” in conversations, LeBaron says. “We have ways of showing people we’re on the same page.” LeBaron emphasizes that responses play as big a role as the initial comment—that all participants in a conversation contribute to its meaning. Be aware of what you say and how you react to what others say. Take the example of a supervisor who wants to fire a “problem” employee. Problems are never “individual,” LeBaron says, they’re interactive. Both the comments of the employee and the responses of the supervisor have contributed to the situation. “If a solution’s going to happen, it’s got to happen together.”

Environment

The environment and resources available in any situation also affects communication. “The material environments we inhabit constrain our interactions or provide resources and support for our interactions.” If you’re having trouble getting a point across or coming to an agreement with other people on an important issue, consider your environment. Physical structures can influence behavior. For instance, a team sitting in a small room at a long rectangular table might have more trouble seeing each other and talking as a group than a team sitting in a large room at a round table.

But LeBaron also notes that our ability to use material resources depends on our skills with nonverbal and verbal communication. He cites a study he conducted among architects, in which he found that those who used their hands to explain spatial arrangements to their clients and paid attention to clients’ body movements were better able to draw successful plans.

Read the total message

To avoid misunderstandings and keep conversations on track, pay attention to both the content and conditions of any conversation. That includes physical, emotional and behavioral signals, according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. “Visible behaviors are extremely important,” LeBaron says, “But they become meaningful and interpretable through coordination with talk, and through their situational occurrence within a social and material setting.” 

Resource

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (2d ed.) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. McGraw-Hill, 2011.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Curtis D. LeBaron, PhD; About.com, www.about.com; Brigham Young University, www.byu.edu; University of Colorado at Boulder, www.colorado.edu/; The University of California, Santa Cruz, www.ucsc.edu

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