Verbal communication at its core is simply words on paper or more accurately these days, words on a screen. While this is true, it isn’t the only way we can communicate. In fact, it’s one of the least efficient methods that we have.

Why is it that we can understand entire videos of people interacting where no words are ever spoken? How is it that a laugh in every language sounds the same? How is it possible to communicate our needs when we can’t even speak properly?

Nonverbal communication (NVC) is the act of communication through gestures, eye contact, facial expression and body language. It can also involve context from the surrounding situation. Masters of communication know the importance of NVC and how one subtle detail can change the atmosphere of an entire scenario.

Our hope is to increase the overall awareness of NVC and how it can enhance our ability to communicate or understand situations on a deeper level.

Body Language

A large part of reading the room comes from body language. Slumped shoulders can indicate lowered spirits; people dancing around will convey a high energy environment. We generally know what we’re getting into before the first word is spoken.

The body will tell a lot about how a person is feeling. Tense shoulders and pacing usually mean a person is feeling stressed or trapped as they instinctively feel the need for fight or flight. Clenched fists or wringing hands could hint that they are angry, frustrated or nervous; while a puffed out chest and lose hanging arms implies confidence or they’re comfortable with how things are going.

Even more telling is the face. Our ability to define intent with our face is unparalleled. Entire stories can be told with nothing but facial expressions. Shifting from one extreme emotion to the next with surprising speed, particularly expressive people can tell you exactly how they feel in an instant.

The true MVP when communicating in this fashion has to be the eyes. There’s a reason phrases like “The eyes are the window to the soul” and the concept of a smile not “reaching one's eyes” exist.

The versatility of our eyes, combined with our brows is amazing. A wink can defuse a tense situation. A scowl doesn’t happen without cross eyebrows. Eyes can tell us when a person is lying. They can offer condolences. They can assure us their focused attention or tell us when somebody is distracted.

If ever we want to get to the truth of a matter, go to the eyes for the answer.

A common misconception is that speaking is exclusively verbal communication. Even the act of speaking has non-verbal aspects. Tone and pitch can combine for emotional expression and will affect how the literal words we use are delivered.

Pitch is the frequency used to make a sound. The mere act of shouting requires distinct effort, often colored with a specific emotion such as urgency or anger. Conversely, a soft whisper could imply the need for a calmed environment.  

Rapid Response/Controlling the Message

So, why is this all important? Knowing these things will allow us to respond to situations thoroughly and with a higher awareness.

Picture a motivational speaker greeting their audience with clenched teeth, tears streaming down their face saying “I’m having a great day!” Not only would this scene confuse people, it might be a dangerous one. At the very least, that motivational speaker will probably need somebody to talk to in order to deal with whatever is bothering them. Whatever that speaker has to say will be met with immediate skepticism.

Let’s say we enter a room where two people are arguing. The scene is tense. One person has narrowed eyes while the other is gesturing dramatically, eyes wide and nostrils flared. What should we do?

NEUTRAL RESPONSE

A neutral expression is normally used to de-escalate a charged environment.  Adopting a soothing or even tone can calm elevated emotions. It provides the pause needed for emotional people to reset. This let’s cooler heads prevail. Try not to go too far. Sounding robotic or monotone can be off-putting.

Neutral expression can control the general flow regardless of the feelings of the person using it. It can provide a source of reason within the chaos. If the boss is losing their head, what does that tell the people underneath them? Maintaining a controlled demeanor can prevent a bad situation getting worse or salvage a hopeless one.

However, this can also make people believe one is not invested in a topic. Neutral responses can appear cold and uncaring. Be aware of how this could come across despite the intent.

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

An emotional expression is exactly how it sounds. If we were to respond to the situation above emotionally, we may make things worse. Raising our voices would feed the already tense situation. Adrenaline kicks in and things could get out of control very quickly.

Emotional responses are useful when trying to convey exactly how one feels. It can show passion, remorse, excitement or disdain. It can sway a crowd or convince somebody that a goal is worthy of their attention.  An emotional plea can touch hearts and change minds.

Be aware that too much emotion can convey somebody who is not in control of themselves. It can drive people in the opposite direction of the message or put an audience off balance. True masters of this are unrivaled speakers capable of great things.

Adding Context to Words

So how do we enhance our messages when we don’t have a body to make things clear? What if our media is simply words on a screen? We are constantly trying to find ways to make our points known in the limited environments we tend to travel.

Emoticons started as a series of parenthesis and colons at the end of a sentence meant to convey emotion. These eventually evolved into emotes or emojis. Little pictures of faces showing how somebody is feeling. Properly applied, a smiling emote can soften a criticism. A winking face can imply that the words being said are a joke. GIFs are short animations that can further color a paragraph or sentence. There are even companies developing the ability to create digital avatars of their users so our ability to emote is even more personal.

Some people have problems properly expressing themselves. If we are angry about something and that emotion bleeds into our words, the people we are talking to could misconstrue that emotion as being directed at them. Take the time to clarify that your anger is coming from something else. This will hopefully prevent the natural instinct of getting defensive and worsening the situation. Taking a moment to clarify where our emotions are coming from can increase understanding and get people more readily onboard with what’s going on.

In the end, there is no perfect way to communicate. The best we can do is take those moments where we didn’t get our point across and reflect on how things could have gone differently. If we use this information to follow up on those situations or prevent future miscommunications, we will all be better for it.