Nonverbal communication in the workplace: The secret to team trust

July 28, 2022 - 17 min read

woman giving thumbs up as nonverbal communication at work

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What is nonverbal communication?

Using verbal vs. nonverbal communication styles at work

Examples of nonverbal communication in the workplace

How to leverage nonverbal communication while working remotely

Understanding your nonverbal communication style

Recognizing the nonverbal communication of others

How to connect with coworkers using nonverbal communication

The importance of nonverbal communication in the workplace cannot be overstated.

That’s because the key to creating an authentic and deep connection with your team is effective nonverbal communication. Your body language, tone of voice, and the manner in which you speak can make a much bigger impact than what you actually say. 

In fact, studies have shown that the majority of communication is non-verbal — as much as 93% of communication, depending on the topic matter. Gaining the trust of others comes from what you are communicating when you’re not saying anything at all.

The good news? You can learn to utilize nonverbal communication in the workplace. With a bit of intentional effort, you can use this skill to build authentic relationships, become a better leader, and improve team collaboration.  

What is nonverbal communication?

First, let’s understand what nonverbal communication is. 

Nonverbal communication is any way that we communicate without using words. Made up of nonverbal cues, this kind of communication shows you when a co-worker is having a bad day, even if they say “I’m fine.” It’s also how you can show a potential employer that you’re professional in a job interview — for example, having good eye contact and a strong handshake. 

There are 8 different types of nonverbal communication, according to experts: 

  1. Facial expressions: such as smiling, frowning, or grimacing 
  2. Appearance: like wearing a business suit or choosing a certain hairstyle 
  3. Hand gestures: conscious body movements like a thumbs up or waving hello
  4. Body language: such as slouching, crossing your legs, or fidgeting
  5. Proxemics: your physical distance from someone or how you respect others’ personal space 
  6. Eye contact: how long you hold your gaze or if you avoid it altogether 
  7. Touch: such as comforting someone with a hug or a touch of the knee
  8. Paralinguistics: includes your tone of voice, the volume that you speak at, and pitch

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Using verbal vs. nonverbal communication styles at work

Whether it’s a client meeting or a Zoom call with your employees, verbal messages are a big part of workplace communication. But limiting your communication skills to the spoken word is a big mistake if you want to succeed professionally. 

So why is nonverbal communication in the workplace so important? It all goes back to the old saying, “actions speak louder than words.” 

Using a verbal communication style at work looks like sharing your intended message with words — but maybe having no concern for how your body language or tone of voice supports that message. For example, you share an important presentation but stand still with crossed arms. Or maybe you deliver feedback with a deadpan facial expression. 

Your words are there, but your team isn’t sure they can trust you because your actions don’t seem to back it the message. In contrast, nonverbal communication in the workplace looks like using nonverbal signals to make authentic connections and engage with your coworkers. 

Even if you don’t say something directly, your team knows they can count on you because you make eye contact, show you’re paying attention during meetings, and maintain a professional appearance. 

That’s the power of nonverbal communication in the workplace — it’s one of the best ways to drive engagement, boost team productivity, and create trust with your coworkers.

group of people laughing as nonverbal communication at work

Examples of nonverbal communication in the workplace

Whether you’re leading a company or starting your first job, the way you communicate without words matters. In fact, your nonverbal communication in the workplace is crucial to your success. So that you can see it for yourself, let’s review a few examples. 

Example 1: Managing and supporting a team through tough times 

Let’s say you’re a manager and you have to tell your team members about upcoming budget cuts. This is a tough conversation that’s likely to lead to fears about job security, among other stressors. 

In order to successfully lead your team through this time, you need to be able to: 

  • Calm their anxiety so that they can stay engaged and productive 
  • Motivate them to increase their job performance so that the company can boost revenues 
  • Show your trustworthiness so that they can be confident in your leadership 
  • Be welcoming so that they know they can rely on you for support and come to you with concerns 

While the spoken word can help you with the above, you’ll need nonverbal communication skills to best guide them through this time. Here are some nonverbal cues that can help: 

  • Help lower their anxiety by sharing the news in an even, calming tone of voice
  • Motivate them by making eye contact and leaning forward when you speak, so they know you’re invested in the team and want to engage with them 
  • Show your trustworthiness by maintaining a positive facial expression, open stance (versus crossed arms or legs), and relaxed shoulders 
  • Stay welcoming after the meeting by keeping your office door open, being available via office chat platforms, and waving hello whenever you walk by their desks

Example 2: Delivering an engaging presentation 

Let’s say you’re hoping to get a promotion soon, and you really want to show your manager you’re ready. You are delivering an important sales presentation today, so you make sure to get your script down perfectly. You also prepare to set yourself apart with your nonverbal communication skills, like: 

  • Dressing in a sleek, professional, undistracting outfit 
  • Using an enthusiastic, engaging tone of voice that grabs attention 
  • Taking advantage of hand gestures to help emphasize your most important points 
  • Using facial expressions like a smile when you begin to show your excitement
  • Making direct eye contact with the audience so that you keep them engaged 

Your coworkers might also use nonverbal communication cues to help support you during the big presentation. For example, giving you a thumbs up when you start and clapping when you finish.

woman describing nonverbal communication at work

How to leverage nonverbal communication while working remotely

You might be thinking that nonverbal communication in the workplace only matters at the office. In today’s world, where so many of us are working from home, how can you still leverage nonverbal signals to connect with your coworkers? It’s actually simpler than you might think. 

Many nonverbal cues from the “real world” also translate to the virtual world. Here are a few tips for those signals while working remotely:

  • Maintain good posture during virtual meetings. Slouching or leaning back communicate that you’re not paying attention and are not engaged with the meeting. 
  • You can use eye contact and hand gestures to make virtual presentations more interesting and impactful. Yes, it’s eye contact with your camera, but it still counts. Plus, getting your hands into the frame will draw attention and keep people engaged. 
  • Facial expressions are just as important in Zoom meetings as they are in face-to-face interactions. It’s easy to get distracted during long video calls, but be careful not to let yourself show a bored expression. Nod along with the speaker, smile every once in a while, and show you’re listening actively.  
  • Use the office chat platform to stay connected. That doesn’t just mean sending messages — most platforms now allow you react with emojis and send funny GIFs. These small gestures take little effort but can make up for much of the nonverbal communication that’s lost with virtual teams.

Understanding your own nonverbal communication style

You’re probably unaware of the nonverbal signals you’re already using — often, they’re unconscious.  But if you don’t know what nonverbal messages you’re currently sending to others, it will be hard to change them. 

Becoming aware of your current nonverbal communication style is essential to making it more effective. Here is a simple exercise to help you get started. 

First, identify two different people in your life: someone you feel comfortable and at ease communicating with, and someone you struggle to connect with or feel less confident interacting with. The next time you are speaking with each of them, ask yourself these questions:

  • What was my tone of voice?
  • How was the pace and volume of my speech?
  • How was my posture?  
  • Was there any tension in my body, and if so, where?
  • Did I use any specific mannerisms?
  • What physical gestures did I make?

Next, once you’ve collected data from both of these situations (i.e., interacting with these two different people), compare the data. Notice the subtle differences in your own non-verbal communication style in each situation, and begin to make yourself aware of which of these elements are consistent patterns across multiple interactions.

By trying out this exercise, you are developing a crucial aspect of self-awareness which will be essential to gaining control over your own communication style, so that you can later be more effective in using non-verbal communication with your teammates.

Recognizing the nonverbal communication of others

Effective communication requires you to see what others are trying to say “between the lines.” Then, once you understand their style of nonverbal communication, you can adjust your own style to form better connections.

Next time you’re interacting with someone, compare your own non-verbal communication style. Chances are, you’ll find similarities between your communication style and that of the person you feel a connection with. On the other hand, you might find discrepancies between your style and that of the person you struggle to connect with. Why is that?

The simple explanation is that familiarity creates trust. Recognizing elements of another person’s behavior helps us feel kinship with their character and a sense of empathy with their experience. 

If you’ve ever communicated with people from different cultures, you know how challenging diverse styles can be for establishing a sense of connection. It’s the nuances of communication, unique to each culture, that can help deepen intra-group bonds and understanding. 

As a result, it’s natural that we will feel a greater connection with people who share our communication styles. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to connect with diverse groups, especially by improving our nonverbal communication skills.

How to connect with coworkers using nonverbal communication

Human beings are biologically equipped to be natural empathizers, so long as we don’t let our own habitual patterns of communication get in the way.

The key to establishing a sense of familiarity with someone is finding that connection between your nonverbal communication styles. Then, you can build that connection by mirroring your communication style. 

How to mirror your coworkers to build deeper connections 

Have you ever seen a loved one cry and suddenly felt your own tears welling up? This is the power of mirror neurons, which fire in our brains when we observe other people. They basically give us the ability to feel what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. 

So how can we take advantage of the operation of mirror neurons to develop a connection with someone? 

  1. Start by identifying what about your two styles of communicating is the same and different. Sometimes, simply observing this is enough to create a deeper sense of connection.
  2. Next, begin to play with mirroring your non-verbal communication style to match the other person. Notice their manner of speech and body language, and see how you can weave those into your own behavior (while staying true to yourself, of course.) 
  3. You can also practice reflective listening, i.e., verbally repeating something back to the other person right after hearing it. This will build on your nonverbal mirroring. 
  4. Continue this process as you build this connection. Weave in your own unique communication style while remaining aware of their body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues that you can potentially mirror. 

Basically, your goal is to be emotionally intellegent. You want to find common ground by for example, mirroring the way they’re sitting, so that you have a stronger foundation to build a deeper connection from. 

You also want to be in tune with their emotions — you don’t want to have an enthusiastic, happy tone of voice when they’re clearly frustrated, angry, or sad. You don’t have to fake your emotions, though. You can simply, for example, lower your volume, lean in to show you’re there to support them, and have a more gentle tone of voice. 

Mirroring someone’s body posture, movement, or pace opens up communication between your bodies in a way that words alone cannot. This increases the opportunity for you to develop familiarity and trust.

Moving forward, communicating better

When teammates feel they can trust you, they’ll be more likely to show you their strengths and weaknesses, so you can collaborate to find the ways to best develop and utilize them. Instead of having a transactional relationship, you’ll be able to truly support and empower your team. 

Over time, you’ll see that nonverbal communication has immense power to help you build more authentic relationships with everyone at your company. As a result, that greater connection will help you and your team feel more fulfilled at work. And at the end of day, that’s what we all want, right?

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Published July 28, 2022

Rachel Tegano

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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