How to Understand Your Coworkers' Nonverbal Communication

Businesswoman looking disappointed with folded arms.

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Is there ever any doubt in your mind as to the mood of a coworker upon their arrival at work? Nonverbal communication is the single most powerful form of communication. More than the voice or even words, nonverbal communication cues you into what is on another person’s mind. The best communicators are sensitive to the power of emotions and thoughts communicated nonverbally.

Nonverbal communication ranges from facial expression to body language. Gestures, signs, and use of space are also important in understanding nonverbal communication. Multicultural differences in body language, facial expression, use of space, and especially, gestures, are enormous and enormously open to misinterpretation.

So, heed the need to become culturally sensitive before making an interpretation of body language that might or might not inform you of what the individual actually thinks. This also applies to other nonverbal interpretation of a coworker's thinking or meaning. Some people are more sensitive to the meanings of nonverbal communication. Others are simply guessing.

How Much of an Expert Are You in Understanding Nonverbal Communication?

To gauge your expertise in interpreting nonverbal communication, check out the nonverbal communication interpretation quiz questions from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Each link leads to pictorial quiz questions and explanations.

One of the funniest—yet at the same time, saddest—nonverbal exchanges witnessed occurred in the registrar’s office at a major university. A multinational student tried to communicate his problem to an older, white female. He gesticulated constantly, waving his hands to punctuate his communication.

He tried to narrow the distance between himself and the university employee, who kept backing away to maintain her desired amount of distance for her comfort. By the end of the conversation, the student was chasing her the length of the countertop still gesturing with his hands heatedly.

The employee, who obviously was not an expert at understanding nonverbal communication or recognizing the cultural differences mentioned earlier, was afraid. She indicated in a later conversation that she had been terrified of the student who was merely trying to tell her that he had already paid the bill he had just received from the university.

The Significance of Understanding Nonverbal Communication

One study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by the nonverbal communication.

If you want to mask your feelings or your immediate reaction to information, pay close attention to your nonverbal behavior. You may have your voice and words under control, but your body language, including the tiniest facial expressions and movement, can give your true thoughts and feelings away. Most people are really open books, especially to a skilled reader of nonverbal cues.

No matter your position at work, improving your skill in interpreting nonverbal communication will add to your ability to share meaning with another person. Shared meaning is a preferred definition of communication. The correct interpretation of nonverbal communication will add depth to your ability to communicate.

Tips for Understanding Nonverbal Communication

  • Recognize that people communicate on many levels. Watch their facial expressions, eye contact, posture, hand and feet movements, body movement and placement, and appearance and passage as they walk toward you. Every gesture is communicating something if you listen with your eyes. Become accustomed to watching nonverbal communication and your ability to read nonverbal communication will grow with practice.
  • If a person’s words say one thing and their nonverbal communication says another, you are wont to listen to the nonverbal communication—and that is usually the correct decision.
  • Assess job candidates based on their nonverbal communication. You can read volumes from how the applicant sits in the lobby. Nonverbal communication during an interview should also elucidate the candidate’s skills, strengths, weaknesses, and concerns for you.
  • Probe nonverbal communication during an investigation or other situation in which you need facts and believable statements. Again, the nonverbal may reveal more than the person’s spoken words.
  • When leading a meeting or speaking to a group, recognize that nonverbal cues can tell you: when you’ve talked long enough, when someone else wants to speak, and the mood of the crowd and their reaction to your remarks. Listen to them and you’ll become a better leader and a better speaker and communicator.

Understanding nonverbal communication improves with practice. The first step is to recognize the power of nonverbal communication. You’ve surely experienced a time when you had the gut feeling that what a person said to you was untrue.

Listen to your gut. It's your way of taking in and interpreting everything you see and hear from your coworker's body language, movement, the tone of voice, words, and whether all of these components of communication match

Along with your life experiences, training, beliefs and all that make up your past, it’s your inner expert on nonverbal communication.