Communication Tip #4: Know Your Non-Verbals!

Your boss calls you in for a one-on-one meeting. You walk in to her office and sit down, noting her clenched jaw and furrowed brow. You’re immediately worried. This can’t be good. She reaches into her briefcase and pulls out the project analysis you submitted yesterday. As she sets the file on the table, she lets out a long sigh without making eye contaact. You suddenly know exactly what this meeting is about, you know exactly how your boss feels about it, and you have a strong suspicion that you’ll be spending some time redoing the project. All in a few seconds, without a single word being spoken.

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Knowing your non-verbals is one of the most powerful tools for effective communication, and one of the most overlooked in the corporate world. Most people feel comfortable recognizing non-verbal communication in others. However, being aware of the non-verbal messages you broadcast can be far more difficult. Not recognizing your own non-verbals can be absolutely debilitating to communication.

There are six universal emotions that can be identified in every culture across the globe:

  • Happiness
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surpise

These emotions are normally expressed using four non-verbal cues:

  • Space
  • Tone
  • Body language
  • Facial expressions

The combination of these emotions and expressions results in an astounding amount of information that can be gathered without words. If you ever get bored in a meeting, try watching some of your coworkers. Seriously. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about their state of mind without ever exchanging a word.

1. Space

I took a class in college where our assignments were based on disrupting “non-verbal social norms” — like where people stand in an elevator. Normally, if you get on an elevator with someone, where do you stand? At the opposite side—it’s normal! We don’t even think about it. But for this class, my classmates and I would get on an elevator with someone, casually walk in, stand right next to them, and then watch their hilariously uncomfortable response. We got a physical reaction 10 out of 10 times, as they’d slither away, grimace, or just walk out. Physical proximity speaks volumes!

You are non-verbally saying something every time you choose a seat in an empty meeting room. Take a seat on the fringe, and you’re communicating submissiveness. Take the head of the table, and you’re communicating dominance. Most likely, you’re not even aware of the message you’re sending. It’s something that many people send and understand completely subconsciously, but it says a lot about them. The next time you’re in a meeting, take note of who sits where – you’ll learn a lot about your coworkers.

2. Tone

We can say something and mean something completely different, depending on the tone we use. A sweet, endearing, drawn-out, and somewhat nervous, “Honey, I looooove youuuuu,” from your spouse as they tiptoe in the door probably doesn’t mean “I love you.” It probably means, “Hey, I accidentally wrecked your car…” Similarly, when you give some helpful advice to your co-worker, but your tone is gruff, frustrated, and short, your co-worker is far less likely to be appreciative of your thoughtful advice

Your words say one thing, but your tone says another. Maybe you meant it well, but your tone turned your message into, “You’re no good, I really don’t like you, stay out of my way, and do it right next time.” It’s amazing to me how often people are unaware of the effect their tone has on their communication, often to the detriment of their relationships. Match your tone to your words if you and your message will be clear.

3. Body Language

Imagine your boss comes up to you, both palms facing up, and says, “Let’s go to California.” Now imagine the same scenario—“Let’s go to California,” words and tone identical—but with his palms facing down. It makes such a difference! Palms up, he’s asking you. Palms down, he’s telling you.  If you use your hands a lot when speaking, you may not realize how significantly your gestures impact your message.

And it’s not just your hands. Your posture is like a walking signpost telegraphing your social outlook. Are you open or closed? Shy or friendly? Confident or discouraged? The way you sit, the way you walk, and the way you make (or avoid) eye contact are all a part of the way you communicate.  If you sit in a chair hunched over, knees together and arms crossed, you’re saying you’re probably not open to social activities, and you’re probably not feeling very confident. But if you sit with your head up, knees spread and arms outstretched, you’re communicating social ease and confidence.

And believe it or not, it goes both ways: your pose can actually change your mood by altering the chemistry in your body. If you stand with an open posture, in a “power pose” — what I like to call the WonderWoman Pose — your testosterone levels will increase and your cortisol levels will decrease. If you practice being deliberate about the way you sit and stand, you’ll feel a boost in your confidence and a decrease in your stress level. Watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on this subject:

4. Facial Expressions

Your lips, eyebrows, cheeks, and eyes leak emotion. It’s much easier to notice this cue on others than on yourself. Your own “micro-expressions” can cause a very real change in people’s perception of you. Maybe you’re the best worker in the office who constantly looks after the wellbeing of your coworkers — but if your face says something different, you’re never going to reap the rewards. Not being aware of your facial expressions can be career-limiting.

On the flip side, understanding and correctly using expressions can help emphasize your communication and provide a boost to every social encounter. If you’re not sure how to start, try this simple tip: soften your countenance. Relax your facial muscles. People respond positively to soft expressions.

For attitudes and feelings, only 7% of communication is verbal. 38% is tone, and 55% is body language—and when the message between verbal and non-verbal communication is conflicting, people will always believe the non-verbal. So do yourself a favor, and work on becoming more aware of your own non-verbal communication. Your career might depend on it.