Nonverbal communication may seem like an extraneous concern if you’re focused on running a business or building a career in a field like consulting or investment banking. But you’re putting yourself – and possibly your organization and business relationships – at a disadvantage if you undervalue the importance of nonverbal communication in the workplace.
As research is affirming, and as more people in management are starting to recognize, a significant portion of the meaningful information exchanged in any conversation comes from nonverbal communication. And because so much of the work of management involves communication, it would be negligent not to develop one’s ability to read and transmit nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal Communication Definition
Before we go any further, let’s ask the obvious question: what is nonverbal communication? Sales training seminars will suggest it consists of paying attention to what your body communicates in the way you sit or stand, your facial expressions, gestures, etc. These are all examples of nonverbal communication.
Establishing a clear nonverbal communication definition will ensure we understand each other when discussing it. After all, being intentional about all the relevant information that makes up an exchange is what this article is all about. Generally speaking, nonverbal communication can be defined as: all the relevant meaning and information conveyed in a conversation aside from language/spoken words.
Nonverbal Communication Examples
In practice, nonverbal communication can take many forms. The various forms of nonverbal communication include:
- Facial gestures
- Hand gestures
- Sounds (ex: grunts, sighs)
As the field of semiotics in the humanities has demonstrated, everything about what we do and the way we appear conveys meaning. Even the clothes we wear and the fragrances we use convey meaning. Imagine you’re hiring for a consultant position, a highly-visible role that involves interacting with management at Fortune 500 companies and managing different stakeholders (translation: lots of face-time with people).
Now imagine two candidates coming in for interviews. One is wearing an expensive and carefully tailored business suit, with impeccable grooming and wearing a subtle cologne. The other candidate is dressed in ill-fitting “athleisure wear”, ungroomed, in a slouched position, with food crumbs on their lips. You’ve already made a judgement about both of these – you’re telling yourself different stories about these candidates and how suitable they might be for the job – even before you meet them and assess their business acumen.
There are countless other nonverbal communication examples. Juxtaposing them against verbal communication reveals how powerful they can be in shaping an accurate reading of events. Imagine you’re trying to work out a deal with another company. The representative from the other company is promising to meet certain obligations, but as he does so, he keeps avoiding eye contact with you. After a while, the effect is obvious: there is a discrepancy between the message he is delivering with words and the message he’s delivering nonverbally. If you ignore the nonverbal component, you may commit to a deal you will come to regret.
The functions of nonverbal communication are as different as the forms of nonverbal communication. Sometimes, as in the previous example, the function is to contradict what is communicated verbally. In other cases, the function is to resonate with or intensify the verbal message.
In that previous example, if the other company’s representative had made direct eye contact and altered his posture to signal openness, he would have made you more likely to believe the message he was delivering verbally. In evading eye contact, he was inadvertently signaling that he was lying. Whether he was or not is beside the point.
How important is all this – really? You might be wondering how much of communication is nonverbal or what percentage of communication is nonverbal? Well, the truth is slippery. Some experts have suggested that over 90% of communication is nonverbal. This stems from the research of psychologist Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s and 1970s. In popular understanding, this research concluded that 55% of communication consists of body language, 38% in tone of voice, and just 7% in the actual linguistic content. In other words, 93% of communication is nonverbal.
In reality, Mehrabian’s research suggested this breakdown for a specific conversational context as designed by the experiment. This does not mean that all conversations break down in such a way. It does mean, though, that in certain contexts, the vast majority of the actual information exchanged between people happens nonverbally.
Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace
Beyond its obvious importance in high-level negotiations, nonverbal communication in the workplace is an extremely important issue. It can be the hidden source of a great deal of conflict. As anyone who’s been married can tell you, it can be hard enough to recognize and sort through a disagreement when it happens in language. But when your conflict happens nonverbally, it can be extremely hard to notice.
Perhaps inevitably, we are unaccustomed to being as intentional with nonverbal communication as we are with language. We notice even fewer of the nonverbal signals we send, and of the ways those are received. And our impressions of others can be deeply shaped by signals we receive nonverbally, even if we don’t consciously recognize it.
Has someone you work with ever made you uncomfortable without you being able to understand why? It’s likely they were offending you nonverbally in a way you could not consciously articulate.
Cultural Differences in Nonverbal Communication
As more and more commerce is subject to the forces of globalization, managers must make a concerted effort to study cultural differences in nonverbal communication. Whether you are communicating with someone of your own culture or not plays a key role in your ability to understand their intentions. If you’re only communicating with people who share your native tongue and cultural background, you may have a minimal ability to intuitively read nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal communication varies between cultures almost as much as verbal communication does. Sometimes cultural differences in nonverbal communication can be somewhat general. For example, in Asian cultures, hierarchy matters a lot, and less experienced employees will tend to be particularly quiet and deferential. You may usually interpret this type of behavior to mean there is no disagreement with what you are saying. But in this case, there very well may be.
To say the least, it pays to be aware of the subtle cultural differences in nonverbal communication. Remain ignorant, and you may suffer (as many politicians have over the years!).
We all know how hard communication can be. But while we’re accustomed to thinking the answer lies in what’s being said in words, we often fail to recognize how much important information is being transmitted nonverbally. By purposefully learning how nonverbal communication works, we can better read the signals others are sending. We can also better shape the signals we send to others. This is essential for achieving cohesion within our teams and communicating effectively across our organizations.
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