Most of us put thought into what we say in the workplace, but did you know that nonverbal communication, such as tone of voice and body language, make up 93% of human communication
? While some people are unconsciously adept at reading nonverbal cues, many are not. When your nonverbal cues don’t match with what you’re saying, you may find yourself experiencing interpersonal conflict with others, or your intended message may be misinterpreted
Body language is the use of movements and nonverbal elements to indicate attitude, emotion, or reaction to a situation or statement. It encompasses a wide variety of human movement, including motions
and movements within the broad categories of gesture, posture, eye contact, and facial expressions. Reading body language is not only important, but can be very complicated. Let’s take a closer look at how different parts of the body communicate.
Posture is a source of potential miscommunication. Good posture, with your shoulders back, spine straight, chin parallel to the floor or slightly up, communicates confidence and energy. Poor posture, evidenced by slouching or hunched shoulders, sends a message of disinterest, fear, uncertainty, or lethargy. First impressions
in face-to-face meetings are partially determined on a person’s posture.
There is a huge cultural
element to nonverbal communication. Gestures, facial expressions, touch, and other body movements may have one meaning in one culture and a completely opposite meaning in another. Hand gestures are often brought up in the context of public speaking
. Speakers who use too many gestures, or use gestures that are wild, involve the whole body, may convey nervousness, excitability, or aggressiveness. In contrast, gestures that are stiff, too small, or hide the hands (such as putting your hands in your pockets while you speak) may indicate to your audience that you are shy, nervous, insincere, or uncertain. Your gestures can help or hinder your ability to accurately convey your message.
Eye contact is a major cue of nonverbal communication
and is often a key source of discomfort and misunderstanding. If you have difficulty meeting another person’s eyes or holding eye contact long enough, you may be unintentionally conveying the message that you do not want to talk with that person, even if your tone or words are meant to convey the opposite. This may lead to confusion for your audience and uncertainty on their part in how to respond.
Some common eye contact behaviors are eye blocking, increased blinking, gaze aversion, and squinting or narrowing. These behaviors may have different connotations according to cultural norms
, but blocking of the eyes with your hands or an object may indicate frustration, defensiveness, or another negative emotion. Increased blink rate or fluttering the eyes may mean that a person is nervous or under stress. Squinting or narrowing the eyes may indicate concentration or focus, or sometimes stress or discomfort. And averting one’s gaze can have multiple interpretations depending on the situation, but in American culture, this may reveal discomfort, shame, or boredom. It can also be a sign of concentration while processing information
Nearly everyone has been in some situation in which you suddenly become very aware of your own body language. Perhaps you gestured too broadly and become aware that your gestures have become too animated. In response, you might cross your arms, sit on your hands, or clasp your hands behind your back. These movements convey discomfort to some degree, but also make it possible for you to control your gestures—at least for a little while. However, you would eventually fall back into the habit of gesturing without the same level of conscious awareness. It takes practice to become continually aware of your unconscious body language, but is worthwhile to study to become a better communicator
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.