Chances are you have had many experiences where words were misunderstood, or where the meaning of words was unclear. When it comes to nonverbal communication, meaning is even harder to discern. We can sometimes tell what people are communicating through their nonverbal communication, but there is no foolproof "dictionary" of how to interpret nonverbal messages.
Remember, nonverbal communication is the process of conveying a message without the use of words. It can include gestures and facial expressions, tone of voice, timing, posture, and where you stand as you communicate. It can help or hinder the clear understanding of your message, but it doesn’t reveal (and can even mask) what you are really thinking. Nonverbal actions flow almost seamlessly from one to the next, making it a challenge to interpret one element, or even a series of elements.
We perceive time as linear, flowing along in a straight line. We did one task, we’re doing another task now, and we are planning on doing something else all the time. Sometimes we place more emphasis on the future, or the past, forgetting that we are actually living in the present moment whether we focus on "the now" or not. Nonverbal communication is always in motion, as long as we are, and is never the same twice.
Nonverbal communication is irreversible. In written communication, you can write a clarification, correction, or retraction. While it never makes the original statement go completely away, it does allow for correction. Unlike written communication, oral communication may allow "do-overs" on the spot: You can explain and restate, hoping to clarify your point. You can also dig the hole you are in just a little bit deeper. We’ve all said something we would give anything to take back, but we all know we can’t.
In other words, oral and written communication allow for some correction, but that correction still doesn’t erase the original message or its impact. Nonverbal communication takes it one step further. You can’t separate one nonverbal action from the context of all the other verbal and nonverbal communication acts, and you can’t take it back.
In a speech, nonverbal communication is continuous in the sense that it is always occurring, and because it is so fluid, it can be hard to determine where one nonverbal message starts and another stops. Words can be easily identified and isolated, but if we try to single out a speaker’s gestures, smile, or stance without looking at how they all come together in context, we may miss the point and draw the wrong conclusion.
You need to be conscious of this aspect of public speaking because, to quote an old saying, "Actions speak louder than words." This is true in the sense that people often pay more attention to your nonverbal expressions than your words. As a result, nonverbal communication is a powerful way to contribute to (or detract from) your success in communicating your message to the audience.
You express yourself via nonverbal communication all the time without much conscious thought at all.
Pretend you are at your computer at work. You see that an email has arrived, but you are right in the middle of tallying a spreadsheet whose numbers just don’t add up. You see that the email is from a coworker and you click on it. If the email contains unwelcome news, your emotional response will likely be immediate.
If the author of the email could see your face, they would know that your response was one of disbelief and frustration, even sadness, all via your nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal communication gives our thoughts and feelings away before we are even aware of what we are thinking or how we feel. People may see and hear more than you ever anticipated.
Your nonverbal communication includes both intentional and unintentional messages, but since it all happens so fast, the unintentional ones can contradict what you know you are supposed to say or how you are supposed to react.
People tend to pay more attention to how you say something than what you actually say. In presenting a speech, this is particularly true.
We communicate nonverbally more than we engage in verbal communication, and often use the following nonverbal expressions to add to, or even replace, words we might otherwise say.
3a. Illustrators and Emblems
We use a nonverbal gesture called an illustrator to communicate our message effectively and reinforce our point.
EXAMPLEYour coworker Andrew may ask you, "Barney’s Bar after work?" as he walks by, and you simply nod and say, "Yeah." Andrew may respond with a nonverbal gesture, called an emblem, by signaling with the "okay" sign as he walks away.
In addition to illustrators or emblematic nonverbal communication, we also use regulators, which are meant to control communication by either encouraging or discouraging it.
EXAMPLEIf someone is telling you a message that is confusing or upsetting, you may hold up your hand, a commonly recognized regulator that asks the speaker to stop talking.
Say you are in a meeting presenting a speech that introduces your company’s latest product. If your audience members nod their heads in agreement on important points and maintain good eye contact, that is a good sign. Nonverbally, they are using regulators encouraging you to continue with your presentation.
In contrast, if they look away, tap their feet, and begin drawing in the margins of their notebooks, these are regulators suggesting that you better think of a way to regain their interest or else wrap up your presentation quickly.
3c. Affect Displays
Affect displays are another nonverbal indicator; these displays are meant to demonstrate emotions.
EXAMPLEAn affect display that might accompany holding up your hand for silence would be to frown and shake your head from side to side. When you and Andrew are at Barney’s Bar, smiling and waving at coworkers who arrive lets them know where you are seated and welcomes them.
Adaptors are nonverbal displays intended to help an individual feel comfortable in a particular environment or to communicate a certain emotion.
A self-adaptor, such as playing with your hair, involves you meeting your need for security by adapting something about yourself in a way for which it was not designed, or for no apparent purpose.
An object-adaptor involves the use of an object in a way for which it was not designed.
EXAMPLEYou may see audience members tapping their pencils, chewing on them, or playing with them, while ignoring you and your presentation. Or perhaps someone pulls out a comb and repeatedly rubs a thumbnail against the comb’s teeth. They are using the comb or the pencil in a way other than its intended design— an object-adaptor that communicates a lack of engagement or enthusiasm toward your speech.
3e. Complementing, Repeating, Replacing, Masking, and Contradicting
Intentional nonverbal communication can complement, repeat, replace, mask, or contradict what we say.
EXAMPLEWhen Andrew invited you to Barney’s, you said, "Yeah" and nodded, complementing and repeating the message. You could have simply nodded, effectively replacing the "yes" with a nonverbal response.
Masking involves the substitution of appropriate nonverbal communication for nonverbal communication you may want to display
EXAMPLEYou could have decided to say no to the invitation, but might not have wanted to hurt Andrew’s feelings. Shaking your head "no" while pointing to your watch, communicating work and time issues, may mask your real thoughts or feelings.
Finally, nonverbal messages contradicting verbal communication can confuse the listener.
If you had been born in a different country, to different parents, and perhaps as a member of the opposite sex, your whole world would be quite different. Yet nonverbal communication would remain a universal constant. It may not look the same, or get used in the same way, but it would still be nonverbal communication in its many functions and displays.
Still, nonverbal communication can be confusing. We need contextual clues to help us understand, or begin to understand, what a movement, gesture, or lack of display means. Then we have to figure it all out based on our prior knowledge (or lack thereof) of the person and hope to get it right. Talk about a challenge.
Nonverbal communication is everywhere, and we all use it, but that doesn’t make it simple or independent of when, where, why, or how we communicate.
It's important to remember that not all nonverbal communication is done deliberately.
Suppose you are working as a salesclerk in a retail store, and a customer communicated frustration to you. Would the nonverbal aspects of your response be intentional or unintentional?
Your job is to be pleasant and courteous at all times, yet your wrinkled eyebrows or wide eyes may have been unintentional. They clearly communicate your negative feelings at that moment. Restating your wish to be helpful and displaying nonverbal gestures may communicate "no big deal," but the stress of the moment is still "written" on your face.
Can we tell when people are intentionally or unintentionally communicating nonverbally? Ask ten people this question and compare their responses. You may be surprised.
It is clearly a challenge to understand nonverbal communication in action. We often assign intentional motives to nonverbal communication when in fact their display is unintentional, and often hard to interpret.
Researchers Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond have offered three additional principals of interpersonal nonverbal communication that serve our discussion, one of which is that you often react faster than you think.
Your nonverbal responses communicate your initial reaction before you can process it through language or formulate an appropriate response. If your appropriate, spoken response doesn’t match your nonverbal reaction, you may give away your true feelings and attitudes.
Additionally, psychologist Albert Mehrabian asserted that we rarely communicate emotional messages through the spoken word. According to Mehrabian, we communicate our emotions nonverbally 93 percent of the time, with at least 55 percent associated with facial gestures. Vocal cues, body position and movement, and normative space between speaker and receiver can also be clues to feelings and attitudes.
We are all changing all the time, and sometimes a moment of frustration or a flash of anger can signal to the receiver a feeling or emotion that existed for a moment, but has since passed. Their response to your communication will be based on that perception, even though you might already be over the issue.
This is where the spoken word serves us well. You may need to articulate clearly that you were frustrated, but aren't any longer. The words spoken out loud can serve to clarify and invite additional discussion.
According to William Seiler and Melissa Beall (2013), most people tend to believe the nonverbal message over the verbal message. People will often answer that "actions speak louder than words" and place a disproportionate emphasis on the nonverbal response. Humans aren’t logical all the time, and they do experience feelings and attitudes that change.
Still, we place more confidence in nonverbal communication, particularly when it comes to lying behaviors.
According to Miron Zuckerman, Bella DePaulo, and Robert Rosenthal (1981), there are several behaviors people often display when they are being deceptive:
Our nonverbal responses have a connection to our physiological responses to stress, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductivity.
Can you train yourself to detect lies? It's unlikely. Our purpose in studying nonverbal communication is not to uncover dishonesty in others, but rather to help you understand how to use the nonverbal aspects of communication to increase understanding.
When we first see each other, before anyone says a word, we are already sizing each other up. Within the first few seconds, we have made judgments about each other based on what we wear, our physical characteristics, and even our posture.
Are these judgments accurate? That is hard to know without context, but we can say that nonverbal communication certainly affects first impressions, for better or worse. When a speaker and the audience first meet, nonverbal communication in terms of space, dress, and personal characteristics can contribute to assumed expectations. The expectations might not be accurate or even fair, but it is important to recognize that they will be present.
There is truth in the saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Since beginnings are fragile times, your attention to aspects you can control, both verbal and nonverbal, will help contribute to the first step of forming a relationship with your audience. Your eye contact with audience members, use of space, and degree of formality will continue to contribute to that relationship.
As a speaker, your nonverbal communication is part of the message and can contribute to, or detract from, your overall goals. By being aware of it, and practicing with a live audience, you can learn to be more in control.
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "Principles of Nonverbal Communication"