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Nonverbal Communication Skills: Why They Matter

March 30, 2012

For a show “about nothing,” Seinfeld had a lot to teach us, including the importance of nonverbal communication. Not sure what I’m talking about? Watch this.

That “wink episode” from Seinfeld probably gave you a good laugh, but it also points to something very true about any kind of communication, including business communication: facial mannerisms have a huge impact on the success of our interaction with others.

And not just facial mannerisms, but other nonverbal cues as well, from posture to body tension to eye contact.

Photo taken by Kris Krug

Of course in a TV show like Seinfeld the nonverbal communication is exaggerated for the sake of comedy. But in real life we are constantly reacting to more subtle forms of nonverbal communication, sometimes without even knowing it.

I always remember the day a new colleague at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where I teach, told me she assumed I was a “big cheese” simply because of the way I walked. I’m tall, and I suppose I do have a purposeful way of walking, even if it is often because I’m in a hurry! But she interpreted that purposeful walk as self-confidence, and therefore as an indication of confidence and power.

While it’s impossible to say precisely how much of our communication is nonverbal, (although in another Seinfeld episode Kramer tells Seinfeld that “ninety-four percent of our communication is nonverbal”) according to The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, by Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer “well over 60 percent of our messages get across nonverbally.”

How does this play out in business communication? Think of someone you know who always slumps at his desk, or looks away when you talk to him. Most likely he’s not someone who fills you with confidence. On the other side of the coin, maybe you sometimes find yourself slumped at your desk, or avoid looking people in the eye. Either way it’s important to cultivate self-awareness of one’s own nonverbal communication habits. Here are some tips to always keep in mind.

The Language Labs Top Tips for Strong Nonverbal Communication

Stand tall: And sit tall too, even when you feel tired. It will help you convey a sense of confidence, which in turn helps you to be taken seriously.

An eye for an eye: Tell yourself to make eye contact in every face-to-face business conversation. It’s amazing how the brain can make the body do something it doesn’t naturally want to do.

Act “as if”: Even if you are not feeling confident, make sure your body language does not reflect your uncertainty. You might think about things such as keeping your hands and shoulders relaxed, or simply smiling at people.

Mirror image: Imagine, from the comfort of your own home, that you are in a critical meeting, answering a question. Look at yourself in the mirror as you frame your response. Better still, have a trusted friend video a mock presentation — the camera truly does not lie. Use your own critical faculties to evaluate your nonverbal communication, and improve upon it.

Always remember that your body language — the way you move, listen, react — will influence whether or not others want to work with you, and how well you can convince people of your ideas. You don’t have to become a professional actor to change your nonverbal communication; but you do have to become more self-aware. For instance, avoid any larger-than-life winks that might possibly be misinterpreted!

Have you ever responded positively (or negatively) to someone because of their nonverbal communication? Email your story to info@thelanguagelab.

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