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8 types of nonverbal communication that can help to improve your speech

July 7, 2022 - 11 min read

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What is nonverbal communication?

Why is nonverbal communication so important?

8 types of nonverbal communication

3 tips for understanding nonverbal communication

How to improve nonverbal communication

The bottom line

We all rely on nonverbal communication. This is true whether playing a game of charades with your family or trying to show confidence during an important interview.

There’s a reason many of us prefer face-to-face communication over phone calls. Without seeing someone’s facial expressions, posture, and body language, it can be hard to read how they are feeling. 

Nonverbal cues are just as important as verbalization. Nonverbal actions are key for communicating with and understanding everyone in your life. 

Mastering non-verbal communication can also help your career. You can show your confidence, passion, and expertise through small nonverbal communication cues. This is true whether leading a team meeting or attending an important job interview. 

What is nonverbal communication?

There are two primary forms of communication: verbal and nonverbal.

Verbal communication uses words to convey a message, whether that’s orally or in writing. 

Your posture, facial expressions, and eye contact are examples of nonverbal communication methods. We all use these cues in daily conversation, even involuntarily. 

Austrian-American author and educator Peter Drucker had it right when he said that, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” 

We all perform and respond to nonverbal communication — and what we understand that no one says — daily. 

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Why is nonverbal communication so important?

Nonverbal signals are far more subtle than uttered words, but they’re no less important. These cues reveal the meaning behind what someone is saying, their true feelings, and if they’re listening to your half of the conversation. 

Outside of conversational cues, nonverbal behaviors are crucial to bridge language gaps. Even when two people don’t speak the same language, body language can help foster knowledge and understanding. 

Nonverbal communication skills can also help create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. For example, some people with physical disabilities might struggle with their nonverbal cues. Plus, possessing the skills to communicate with nonverbal individuals is vital. 

According to some studies, it’s also clear that non-verbal communication skills can help your career. 

For example, teachers with these skills see more success with their students. When talking with your boss, coworkers, and clients, you can use non-verbal communication to gain a competitive edge.

Finally, your ability to use nonverbal communication can affect many areas of your life, including how you connect with others. This is why understanding the types of nonverbal communication is so important. 

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8 types of nonverbal communication

Experts have identified nine major types of nonverbal communication. They are:

1. Facial expressions

The look on an individual’s face is often the first thing we see. A smile, frown, or grimace tells a lot about their mood and how the subsequent conversation will go. Expressions of happiness, sadness, anger and fear are universal emotions and a key form of nonverbal communication.

2. Kinesics

Kinesics, or gestures, are conscious body movements like waving, pointing, and giving a thumbs up or down. One's culture typically determines what gestures are socially acceptable and which are rude. 

For example, in Westernized countries, glancing at your watch suggests, “I need to be somewhere.” In contrast, many Middle Eastern populations consider this rude. They are more likely to believe a conversation should continue until it ends naturally.

3. Paralinguistics

Paralinguistics — also known as vocalics — refers to the aspects of verbal communication that aren’t the words themselves. Your tone of voice, loudness, and pitch are common aspects of paralanguage. 

This type of communication is powerful since altering your voice changes the meaning of a sentence. Think about all the ways you can use the phrase “I’m fine.” If you say it quietly, you might be feeling dejected, but if you say it forcefully, someone might detect your defensiveness.

4. Body language and posture

Crossing your legs or arms, a head nod, slouching, or sitting up straight are all examples of true body language. For example, you may have seen crime films focus on body language to further the narrative. It can also hint at what isn’t included in the dialogue. 

However, this type of nonverbal communication is complex and quite subtle. Just because you observe a movement doesn’t guarantee you understand the meaning.

Deaf-Businesswoman-Having-Nonverbal-Conversation-With-Colleague-types-of-nonverbal-communication

5. Proxemics

Proximity references how near something is. Human beings take personal space seriously. They also interpret physical distances in interactions differently.

Social and cultural expectations, personal preferences, and your relationship with someone all determine what proximity is suitable. 

For example, if you’re in a relationship with someone, you’d expect to sit close together on the couch. On the other hand, you likely wouldn’t sit that close to your mom’s best friend when she comes over for her weekly book club.

6. Gaze

It may sound cliche, but it’s true that “The eyes are the windows to the soul.”  Our eyes are a massive factor in nonverbal communication because they give away how we feel. 

When we’re scared, our pupils dilate due to a surge in adrenaline. When something excites us, we blink rapidly. Maintaining eye contact generally means that someone is comfortable and telling the truth. In contrast, avoiding eye contact might suggest that they’re nervous or hiding something.

7. Haptics

Communication by touch is called haptics. Touch is powerful because our emotions drive it. Our social class, gender, and, of course, our upbringing all determine how we respond to touch. Women generally use touch to convey care and concern, while men are more likely to convey control. 

Psychologist Harry Harlow made a career in studying the impacts of touch or lack thereof on rhesus monkeys. Monkeys who were raised without a touch from their mothers struggled with social interactions.

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8. Appearance

Your appearance is another thing people notice immediately. Your hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, piercings, and even body shape give off cues. This can encourage snap judgments from other people. There’s a reason your mother always told you to “dress to impress” for a presentation at school or a job interview.

3 tips for understanding nonverbal communication

The more you practice reading cues, the better you’ll become. Some things you can do include:

1. Pay attention to inconsistencies.

Nonverbal communication can either reinforce or discourage what someone is saying. Does a person’s facial expressions match their words? Their tone of voice? If they do, then great. They’re most likely being honest about whatever they’re saying. If it’s the opposite, they may be trying to hide how they truly feel. 

2. Look at nonverbal signals as a whole.

If you’re only paying attention to someone’s posture, you might miss a whole bunch of other clues. Nonverbal signals work in tandem to generate a complete picture of another human being.

3. Trust your instincts.

Go with your gut. Your instincts are there to help guide and protect you about what someone is saying and what they truly mean.

How to improve nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is a necessary factor at home, work, and beyond. Often, these signals occur rapidly. Interpreting or noticing all of them can be challenging during a single conversation.

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Fortunately, there's always room to improve upon these skills. To do so, try focusing on the below.

Managing stress at the moment.

When we’re stressed, we can’t communicate as effectively. How you’re feeling rubs off on others, too. Take some deep breaths to relax and refocus. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be able to read people more accurately.  

Develop your emotional awareness.

Emotional intelligence, or EI, is a significant part of navigating relationships. Being emotionally aware helps you understand people more accurately. In addition, it improves relationships and lets others know that you understand their feelings. 

The bottom line

Nonverbal communication undeniably plays a prominent role in personal and professional life. Person-to-person interaction will almost always involve some kind of non-verbal communication.

Learning to communicate nonverbally is a great way to advance personally and professionally. 

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Published July 7, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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