The importance of non-verbal communication

Human language is a remarkably complex form of communication, consisting of countless languages and ever growing dialects and colloquialisms. Despite the vast array of language differences, one constant persists – non-verbal aspects of communication remain stable and universal.

The ways in which your body either emphasizes or contradicts spoken words is just as important as the words you use, or even more so, in those moments when actions speak louder than words. This is known as non-verbal communication, non-verbal cues, or often described as body language (kinesics).

What does body language mean?

Non-verbal communication is information that is passed without the use of spoken or written words. The non-verbal platform includes eye contact (oculesics) or the lack thereof, facial expressions, gestures, posture, personal appearance, the physical environment and the artefacts/objects that compose it, touch (haptics), paralanguage (vocalics), the use of time (chronemics), and the distance between you and your audience (proxemics).

For example, when interviewing for a job, we might not realize that employers will evaluate what we do as much as what we say. Crossed arms can imply defensiveness, poor posture may seem unprofessional, and a downward gaze (avoiding eye contact) will draw away from the confident impression we want to give.

Verbal and non-verbal communication

Verbal and non-verbal communication occur simultaneously, with the latter generally being under less cognitive control and revealing more of what we actually think and feel. Body language, facial expressions and vocal characteristics are not easy to control, whereas verbal communication is done intentionally and is easier to manipulate. As a result, we have more faith in non-verbal cues than what is actually said. If a person says one thing, but sends a contradicting message non-verbally, the receiver is more likely to trust the non-verbal signal.

Therefore, having a conscious awareness of your non-verbal communication while verbally communicating can help others receive messages the way you actually intended to give them. Also, don´t be “all talk and no substance”. Next time you want to make a positive impression, make sure you have not only prepared what you are going to say, but that you have practiced conveying your messages through appropriate body language (practice makes interview perfect).

There is countless research regarding types, effects, and expressions of unspoken communication and behaviour. To narrow it down, we will repeat the basics offered by psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen (1969), who identified six important ways how non-verbal communication can interact with our verbal discourse: repeating, conflicting, complementing, substituting, regulating and accenting.

What type of communication describes our body language?

  • Repeating – using specific gestures to strengthen a verbal message (e.g. pointing to the object of discussion).
  • Conflicting – when verbal and non-verbal messages within the same interaction send contradicting meaning. Conflicting messages often arise from feelings of confusion, indecision, or frustration (e.g. a friend saying how they had a great time during the party, but his voice sounds flat and his face lacks emotion).
  • Complementing – the accuracy of understanding information is greater when the nonverbal and verbal complement each other. Messages have been shown to be correctly recalled to a greater degree when body language affirms the verbal exchange (e.g. saying you are happy and joyfully showing it too).
  • Substituting – at times non-verbal behaviour is used as the sole channel for communication. A simple gesture can substitute words (e.g. shaking your head to say no).
  • Regulating – we can use non-verbal signals to regulate speech. Called “turn-taking signals”, these gestures make it possible for us to alternate between speaking and listening (e.g. touching someone´s arm can signal that you want to talk next).
  • Accenting – when we use non-verbal signals to emphasize our words. Good speakers will know when to use strong gestures, deliberate pauses, changes in vocal volume or speech rate, etc. (e.g. someone who is verbally expressing anger may accent the message by speaking very loudly).

Respectively, we can agree that spoken language is normally used for communicating information about events external to the speaker, while non-verbal communication is used to create and maintain interpersonal relationships.

Body language in business communication

Going a step further is the analysis of non-verbal communication in business. Since business often involves recurring human interaction, understanding the elements of non-verbal cues can be a great asset when working with colleagues, teams, competitors, and current/potential clients. Managers will use body language to effectively lead employees and team members. On the other hand, employees and team members will use their body language to send messages outside the business.

Within MIUC´s BA Psychology module “The Basics of Interpersonal Skills: Experiential Groups”, the first-year student Tapanga Jansen tackled the topic of “The Power of Non-Verbal Communication in Sales”. Tapanga presented the theoretical and practical aspects of body language, its importance in the sales process of any company, and how it has an impact on the decision making process. Moreover, in her presentation she highlights different aspects of non-verbal communication both from the client´s and seller´s aspect, how certain connections with people can create a trustworthy, professional and credible environment, and consequently, how body language can add interest, clarity and trust. For tips on non-verbal communication that can make or break a sale, watch the following link.

To conclude, it must be said that to build good habits one must practice non-verbal communication and know what gestures are likely to resonate with your speaker (clients and prospects), as to improve the chances of making a good impression. Practicing non-verbal cues will ensure your skills are up to par. The more often you instate adequate body language, the more likely it will become second nature, and you will feel comfortable while networking. So instead of clammy hands and a sweaty brow, aim for establishing credibility and trust in your non-verbal behaviour. The less nervous you are, the better communication you will have, both verbally and non-verbally.

Eva Berkovic
Student Counsellor and Lecturer, MSc Psychology