Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

These cues are critical in connecting with your audience

Two male colleagues communicating
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Consider how body language, posture, eye contact and more can augment or undermine your message. Used in conjunction with verbal communication, these tools can help punctuate, reinforce, emphasize, and enliven your message. Nonverbal cues help create shared meaning in any communication.

How you communicate nonverbally can mean one thing to you and convey a completely different message to your audience. A young fundraiser had the habit of arriving for a meeting with her boss by spreading herself physically over a large space at the table. This, plus her habit of placing her briefcase and her water bottle on both sides of her on the table, nonplussed her boss. The employee was getting comfortable but her boss perceived her presence as an invasion of her space. This was harmful to their relationship and made her boss exceptionally uncomfortable, despite the fact that the boss had all of the power organizationally.

Different Cues

Facial expression: Human faces are incredibly expressive. Emotions such as anger, happiness, hurt, disgust, confusion, and boredom are all easily expressed with facial movements using the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and other features.

Body language: The way a person sits; stands; moves arms, hands, and feet; other subtle movements.

Posture: How you carry yourself including bearing, stance, rigidity, uprightness. You convey a message via your posture and positioning whether you are leaning back comfortably, sitting rigidly on the edge of your seat, or leaning back with your eyes closed.

Eye contact: People often attribute trustworthiness to people who speak while maintaining good eye contact and vice versa. Eye contact is also used to convey interest and emotions, and to promote rapport with the receiver of the message. It is also used to feign interest, mislead, and fake interest.

Gestures: Hand gestures are especially rich conveyors of communication. They punctuate the spoken word and add meaning. Less conscious gestures such as scratching your nose, stroking your hair, tugging on your clothes, placing your hands on your hips, and waving can communicate messages inadvertently.

Signs: Signs and other articles with words, pictures or symbols are considered a form of nonverbal communication.

Clothing and other appurtenances (briefcases, safety glasses, etc.): Types of clothing and your appearance send powerful nonverbal messages. Some of the messages are intentional as when the employee wears a shirt with her favorite athletic team emblazoned on the back or the employee who wears a conservative, business-like suit every day.

People may send other messages unintentionally without realizing the impact of their message on the receiver. The wearer of the conservative suits may appear unapproachable when that was not his intention. He just wanted to appear ready for business, trustworthy, and dependable. The wearer of a low-cut blouse may or may not want her coworkers to find her sexy. At best, however, she sends a mixed message.

Office décor: At work, how you decorate your office also sends messages to employees who enter. Where you place your desk, the distance between your seat and those of visitors, whether furniture separates you from coworkers all speak powerfully.

Tone and other paralinguistic aspects: Paralinguistics is vocal communication separate from the actual words used and includes such factors as inflection, pitch, pacing, pauses, and loudness. This is critical for telephone as well as in-person interaction.

Touch: Touch is a powerful method of nonverbal communication. A pat on the back, a hug, a person reaching out to touch your hand in sympathy communicate with or without any accompanying words.

Physical space: Just as your use of physical space in your office telegraphs a message to the receiver, so does the space that you surround yourself with when working or communicating. Most North Americans prefer about 18 inches of space around their physical person. Anything closer is viewed as too close and, especially in a work setting, too intimate.

In one of the funniest failed communication efforts ever viewed, a student from another country was trying to explain something to the American university’s registrar. He wanted to get closer to her so that he could help her understand why he was right, a practice that worked well in his country of origin.

She wanted her 18 inches of space and was determined to maintain it. So they were literally chasing each other across the office. Every time he moved closer, she moved away. Not every occurrence speaks this loudly, but a person's protection of that private space is swift.

When Nonverbal and Verbal Communication Don't Match

When a mismatch exists between what you are stating verbally and the nonverbal signals you are sending, nonverbal communication resonates more with your audience.

For example, when an employee tells you that everything is fine, but everything about his tone, facial expression, body posture, and failure to smile don't match, you don’t believe the words.

Consequently, if your nonverbal communication is going to serve you well as a tool to improve your overall communication, you need to develop an awareness about matching your nonverbal communication to your words.

When Nonverbal Communication Matters

For good or ill, nonverbal communication can help you or haunt you. Most significantly, recognize the power it has to affect the outcomes of your communication. Whether you are speaking to the whole company at a company meeting, chatting with a coworker on the phone, or talking to your boss in her office, nonverbal communication affects the interaction.

Nonverbal communication is also powerful in your day-to-day meetings with coworkers and your passing interactions in the halls of your workplace. It's significant at your lunches either in or outside of your organization.

Finally, recognize the power of your nonverbal communication with your company stakeholders, your clients or customers, your vendors, and your professional associates. Matching your nonverbal communication to your spoken words will help them trust you.

You can practice and manage your nonverbal communication to convey your messages more effectively. Or, you can allow your nonverbal communication to make you appear ineffective, a sloppy communicator, or an employee whose mixed messages are not trustworthy. Why not use nonverbal communication to your advantage? It's a win for all.