The lost art of non-verbal communication

In the Army there is always an emphasis put on ‘having a face-to-face’ by commanders at all levels where, despite the myriad of communication options open to the modern soldier, we would often go to great lengths, and dangers, to meet with people in person.


I recently had a conversation with a man who runs a business remotely from overseas relying almost entirely on technology to communicate with colleagues and clients.


Two things struck me about this. Firstly, that technology is such that this is not only feasible, but can be very cost effective and liberating. Secondly, that it must be extremely difficult to deal with some of the more difficult or sensitive conversations via a mobile phone or a Skype call. He then admitted that when it came to closing deals, hiring or firing – he still reverted to face-to-face meetings – regardless of the cost of transportation.


But why? Why with video telecommunications, conference calling and mobile telephony should a busy business person still decide to sacrifice time and money to jump on a plane just to meet someone? Or why would a soldier take the risk of moving across a battlefield to deliver information in person to a commander?


The answer is that regardless of rapid advances in technology, our physiology and psychology has changed little in millennia. There is something in our anthropology that means we need the full spectrum of communication to get and give a full message – the verbal and the non-verbal.


If we really want to be convincing or be convinced, we can glean a huge amount more sensory information by meeting in person than any amount of electronic or telephonic discourse.


Despite this, I fear that we are losing some of our non-verbal communication skills. With the average Brit spending almost three hours online each day and more and more people working remotely, like any skill or ability, if we don’t use it we lose it. From poor eye contact to fidgeting to monotone delivery, we are seeing more and more people that simply aren’t comfortable communicating in person.


Good communicators tend to be more successful in all walks of life. Therefore if you are going to concentrate on one soft skill – start with understanding and developing your non-verbal communication skills.


What is Non-Verbal Communication?

Non-Verbal Communication (NVC) is all parts of discourse bar the actual spoken text; from the way the source delivers the message, to use of body and environment in adding to or changing the meaning of the message. This includes:

  • Haptics (touch);
  • Proxemics (use of space such as distance from listener);
  • Paralanguage (rhythm, speed, volume, pitch and intonation);
  • Word choice and syntax;
  • Dress and posture;
  • Eye contact;
  • Facial expressions;
  • Kinesics (gestures and body movements;
  • Use of silence;
  • Physiological changes (eg. sweating, twitching or blinking)


Why is NVC important?

NVC has a number of functions:

  • It can be used to reinforce the verbal message (eg. pointing in a particular direction when describing a location);
  • It can give meaning to a word (eg. sarcasm, framing as a question or a statement);
  • It can contradict the text (eg. a wink to express that the statement is ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in some cultures);
  • It can be used to indicate conversational control (eg. cues as to when somebody wants to speak such as raising a hand);
  • It can replace words (eg. a sigh or raising hands in exasperation).


Your message, however logical and well-constructed, can be interpreted incorrectly, or not believed if your NVC cues tell a different story. On the other hand, your message can be so much more potent if you give off good NVC cues.


How can I improve my NVC?

It is a lot harder to control all of your NVC cues than it is to control the words you use. Sometimes attempts to ‘stage’ NVC cues if picked up by the receiver can have the opposite to the intended effect. For example, an overly confident hand shake could be read as a sign of nervousness. That is part of the reason why NVC is such a useful tool in judging sincerity and agendas – it is hard to mask.


The best advice for improving your NVC is to work on what you do naturally, but accentuate the positives and try to minimise the negatives. Trying too hard is worse than doing nothing at all.


  • Be self aware. Are you happy with the way you communicate? Is there anything you would like to change? What do your friends and family think? Have you ever asked? Identify and unlearn bad habits such as mumbling, staring or awkward eye contact;
  • Be aware of your emotions and how they affect your NVC. Find ways to cope with them;
  • Be NVC aware. Watch people who you think are good communicators and try to decide why you get that impression. Is it their eye contact? Their gestures? The pitch of their voice? Can you work any of these into your own communication style;
  • Concentrate. Listen to the person speaking and look out for non-verbal cues. They could be a vital part of the information being transmitted;
  • Don’t just get hung up on the words. They will lack meaning unless they are supported by the right NVC cues. Ensure your words are in sync with your gestures, tone and pitch;
  • Consider culture. Different NVC cues have different meanings to different people. Strong eye contact is seen as positive in some cultures but negative in others;
  • Be confident in expressing yourself and avoid hesitation. People who constantly ‘umm’ or ‘you know’ are less convincing
  • Mirroring is when your gestures and paralanguage match those of the receiver. This will often happen naturally and is a sign that you are trying to build an affinity with the other person. Don’t try and stage this too much or they may think you are making fun of them!;
  • Practice! Ditch the smart phone and up the amount of time you converse in person with others.


What can I tell from other people’s NVC?

Reading other people’s NVC cues is an inexact science, especially if you do not know the person you are conversing with particularly well. However, there are some things you can watch out for:


  • Instinct – The survival instinct of being able to judge friend of foe is at the heart of our NVC reading ability. You possess a well-evolved instinct that will pick up on NVC cues. You won’t go too far wrong if you learn to identify and listen to this instinct.
  • Inconsistencies – If a person is saying one thing but their NVC cues are telling a different story they may just be nervous, or may be insincere.
  • Look at all the NVC cues – Hollywood is responsible for the belief that one single gesture can give away a lie. It is rarely that simple. Look for a pattern or a series of NVC cues rather than put too much weight on individual cues.
  • Staging – Some people try hard to control their NVC cues. They may have been professionally coached or developed their own staging techniques. If something appears unusual or strange in a person’s NVCs cues, they may be trying too hard – useful information in itself.


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