Nonverbal Communication: What It Is + Why It’s Important
What is nonverbal communication?
Communication is comprised of verbal and nonverbal aspects.
The verbal component is words. The nonverbal component consists of:
- facial expressions,
- voice patterns,
- body language (including the amount of space between people),
Although there is more to nonverbal communication than body language, many people use “nonverbal communication” and “body language” interchangeably.
Often each culture has its own language (verbal) and style of delivery (nonverbals). The concept of “culture” is not limited to nations. Every person has several identities (think: parent, spouse, sibling, professional, community member, at home vs. work), and often each identity has its own culture.
Why is nonverbal communication important?
Understanding another person’s nonverbal communication cues helps us connect with others more quickly, understand when the conversation is going “off track,” and lead groups more effectively.
For instance, if you need to have a difficult conversation, you can use nonverbal cues to make the conversation easier for you — and more comfortable for the other person. These cues work in-person and virtually.
As another example, watch the Hudson River Plane Landing video and just listen to the pilot landing the plane. To communicate well nonverbally, you have to have the ability to recognize, label, predict the effect, and respond to non-verbal patterns of communication.
What are some examples of nonverbal communication?
Common nonverbal communication cues relate to:
- eye contact,
- how often someone blinks,
- voice speed, intonation, undulation,
- frequency and amplitude of gestures,
- sitting up straight vs. leaning forward
- How someone stands and shifts their weight,
- Where someone places their hands during a presentation.
We’ve recorded people and asked them to talk about their responsibilities. After two minutes, we ask them to talk about another arena of their world. When we playback the footage, it is clear that their eye contact, how often they blink, voice speed, intonation, undulation, frequency and amplitude of gestures, sitting up straight vs. leaning forward is markedly different.
Surprisingly, the single most important nonverbal component is breathing. Neuroscience indicates high, shallow breathing releases “fight” chemicals with every inhalation.
How much of communication is nonverbal?
About 80-90 percent of communication is nonverbal.
Research shows that people respond much more to nonverbal communication than literal words.
Are there gender differences in nonverbal communication?
Generally, yes — men and women have different communication styles. For instance, women tend to give off more approachable nonverbal cues. Men come across as more credible.
Can understanding nonverbal communication help at work?
Yes! Group dynamics are an excellent example. For instance, nonverbal cues can tell you if a group is formed or unformed. You can also use nonverbal cues to identify dysfunctional teams — for instance, watching how team members listen to what’s being said.
Additionally, understanding nonverbal communication skills can help you look and feel more confident during a presentation. Techniques like pausing, modulating your volume, and arm movement can help you connect with your audience faster.