Research shows that nonverbal elements in communication have a major impact on the interpretation of the information we convey. Since group dynamics are always changing and people are all different, it is essential to elevate awareness of nonverbal cues. Focus on improving your ability to read nonverbal cues and you will see the results as relationships—personal and professional—are strengthened.
As you begin to hone your skills in picking up on nonverbal cues, it is important to keep five key principles in mind.
- Culture, age, gender and geographic location are critical. Gestures may mean very different things in different regions. Cultural and family norms also affect the way we react to nonverbal cues.
- Put things into context. If someone has their arms crossed it may just mean they are chilly. Before jumping to conclusions, put the conversation and the individual into the context of the topic, timing and other external influences.
- Look for a combination of signals. It is extremely difficult for our entire body to lie. People are capable of hiding their true intentions, but the real meaning often leaks through multiple channels.
- Incongruence can mean many things. When words and nonverbal cues don’t align, our natural instincts kick in. Psychological discomfort may indicate that you are the recipient of untruths, but that uneasy feeling may mean other things, as well. Refining one’s ability to become more attuned to nonverbal cues can increase one’s ability to be more in tune with your own instincts.
- Trust your intuition. Intuition is the unconscious processing of information (e.g. subtle nonverbal signals) manifested as physical feelings. Authenticity is key since people easily pick up on unauthentic and insincere communication. The more one’s awareness of the spoken and the unspoken, the more one’s own instincts are heightened.
The seven zones for nonverbal cues
To master the art of nonverbal communications, one must know where to look and the meaning of cues. There are seven areas (zones) of the body that present a gateway to the unspoken meaning of a conversation. Improving your overall communication skills starts with taking note of the cues being sent from each zone individually, as well as collectively.
The face often gives the most obvious and powerful signals. It is extremely expressive, able to express countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike other zones greatly influenced by cultural norms, facial expressions are the most universal. Specifically, facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures.
The eyes can indicate thought processes or cognitive function. It is important not to read too much into a lack of eye contact since it is common for many people to glance away when they are thinking. Eyes can also perform a monitoring function. From interpersonal to public speaking situations, we can monitor our communication effectiveness by looking at others and monitoring their feedback.
Hands and gestures
Hand movements and gestures are the indicators most affected by cultural or geographic norms. When working with an international team or client, hand gestures can have radically different meaning. For example, in Texas holding up your index and small finger to form horns is the “Hook ‘em Horns” battle cry for the University of Texas, but that same gesture in Spain, Greece and Italy is considered offensive. That being said, hands movements and gestures send an enormous amount of information.
Most times, a person’s posture conveys their overall attitude, confidence and physical wellbeing. Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up, hold their head or enter a room. The way an individual moves communicates a wealth of information to the world.
The position of your head tells a story and reflects intent or position. Lowering the head is a subservient or insecure movement. This movement is often accompanied by a more closed off or weak posture. When the head moves from a lowered position to straight or even slightly raised, this is a sign of sudden interest. That movement snaps the listener back into the conversation.
Proximity is all about a person’s positioning and their space in relation to others. Various factors impact how closely we sit or stand next to someone. The distance is normally determined by social and cultural norms and the unique patterns of those interacting. The nature of the topic of discussion may also influence distance.
Feet and legs
The position of the feet and legs are often the most honest indicators of true meaning. The feet and legs serve as a turn signal—indicating where the individual would like to go, if they had the choice.
Feet direction indicates one’s readiness or eagerness to move. When two or more people are standing in conversation, watch where the feet are pointing. If the feet are positioned toward the interior of the circle, the person is engaged. However, if one foot is pointing in an outward position—just like one would to take a step away—that position says, “I am ready to move on.”
There are many reasons why people do not always say what they mean. Understanding the entire meaning of any communication means not only listening to what is being said, but also ascertaining meaning from the unspoken.
Christine Hollinden is president and founder of Hollinden Consulting.