Non-Verbal Communication

The Nuances of Tone & Body Language


Written by
Home /  Resources /  Effective Communication /  Non-Verbal Communication

What is Non-Verbal Communication? Why is it important?

Mime showing hands in non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication is all the things that communicate something to someone except for the direct words being used. This can be both unintentional and intentional and typically includes, but is not limited to, touch, eye contact, volume, proximity, gestures, intonation, posture, sounds (paralanguage), facial expressions, and vocal nuance (Andrews University, 2012).

Pie chart of non-verbal communication

These cues help us to convey or understand information about emotional state, reinforce/modify what the words are saying, provide feedback, regulate the flow of conversation, and to define or reinforce a relationship between people (SkillsYouNeed, 2012). Tests have proven that people tend to assume that the information they receive from non-verbal communication is more truthful that what the verbal message (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012). When the non-verbal cues match the verbal message, it tends to increase trust, clarity, and rapport while a mismatching communication tends to breed tension, mistrust, and confusion (Segal, Smith, & Jaffe, 2012).

Types of Non-Verbal Cues

This is the pitch of the speaker's voice as it rises and falls while communicating. This is useful for detecting whether some messages are statements or questions. It is also the way we understand syntax within a sentence; in the written format, this would be demonstrated by commas and periods (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012).

Tone of Voice
Tone of voice is the implied attitude to the message. This type is more commonly noticed by people as it tends to elicit a response/reaction from the listener (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012).

Touch (Haptics)
How we interact with people through touch can have a huge impact from a firm handshake to a patronizing pat on the head (Segal, Smith, & Jaffe, 2012). Research has shown the importance of this type of contact in the Harry Harlow classic monkey study where the deprivation of touch in baby monkeys experienced lasting deficits in social interaction and behaviour (Cherry, 2012).

Body posture
This is the generally stable body position of the person. These postures can give clues to a person's tension and state of relaxation (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012). It is typically categorized into open or closed posture. Closed posture tends to include positions in which a person has their arms/legs crossed or they are sitting at an angle to the person they are engaged in conversation with. Open posture includes positions in which the person is directly facing the other conversationalist in a relaxed and friendly state (SkillsYouNeed, 2012).

Space (Proxemics)
The space between two people in a conversation that makes them feel comfortable depends on a variety of factors such as situational factors, social norms/culture, level of familiarity, and personality characteristics (Cherry, 2012). In Western culture there are considered 4 distances appropriate for 4 main types of relationships: intimate, personal, social, and public (SkillsYouNeed, 2012).

Gestures are usually made to emphasis an attitude or intention. These gestures has some different meanings from culture to culture (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012).

Facial Expressions & Eye Movement
The face continues to change with emotions and is a big indicator of the emotions of a person. While many habits about eye contact, such as length/frequency of eye contact, tend to be cultural, many facial expressions mean the same thing cross-culturally (International Assocation of Conference Interpreters, 2012). Paul Ekman has even identified some expressions, called micro-expressions, are uncontrollable tensions of the face that betray specific emotions.

Reading Those Non-Verbal Cues

Being aware of these cues contributes to what is commonly referred to as Emotional Intelligence and being able to read non-verbal communication will help you in all your interpersonal relationships. There are several ways to increase your ability to read non-verbal cues. You need to pay attention to any inconsistencies between the verbal message and the non-verbal communication. It's also important to consider the nonverbal signals as a whole group and not just individual cues. You will get a more accurate reading if you consider the whole of behaviour. It's also important to trust your instincts (Cherry, 2012). Lastly, you can consider the following questions

Actions speak louder than words

  • What kind of eye contact is being made? Is it just right? Too intense? Avoiding?
  • What kind of facial expressions are you seeing? Are they showing emotion in their expressions?
  • What tone of voice are they projecting?
  • Are their shoulders raised and tense? Sloped?
  • Are they appearing relaxed?
  • Is there any physical contact? Is it appropriate?
  • How is the flow of the conversation? Easy paced? Strained?

These are just some starting considerations and as you begin to pay closer attention you will notice more and develop your ability to communicate (Cherry, 2012).

Using Non-Verbal Cues to Help Direct Conversation

When engaged in a difficult or emotionally charged conversation, you can take steps to help reduce the tension by using your knowledge of non-verbal cues. The first step is to control your own stress. Try to regulate your breathing, keep your voice in a nice steady tone and level. Sit comfortably and try to remain as relaxed as possible. Simply by controlling your own non-verbal cues, for many situations, you can de-escalate an emotionally charged conversation.

When someone is upset and pacing, they will get more upset as their physical tension rises. By controlling your own reactions and non-verbal cues, you are being a good model and also failing to feed the momentum or their negative emotions. If someone is yelling and you keep your voice steady and even, it will draw more of their attention to their outburst and they will calm to come closer to your demeanour.

The other way you can work to de-escalate an emotionally charged conversation with your body language is to try to retain your calm while you simply remain silent. People will get angry when they feel they are not being listened to. If your words are not having an effect, simply let them talk and they will begin to settle down once they feel they have had the chance to have their say and they notice your calm and relaxed demeanour. This will not work for every situation, as in some situations the other person may feel that their emotional release is being greeted with apathy, and it will definitely not be easy.

As with all things, practice makes perfect!

Recommended Reading

These books have been read and reviewed by Keeping it Kinky and we recommend them as resources in the area of communication

Getting to Yes partial book cover
Getting to Yes
Kashiko | September 14, 2012
All about communication and negotiation without giving up what is really important to you
Read Getting to Yes Review
How to Tell Anyone Anything partial book cover
How to Tell Anyone Anything
Kashiko | September 14, 2012
How to navigate difficult conversations
Read How to Tell Anyone Review
Written September 21, 2012 | Updated April 25, 2015
Share on Google+

Article References

Andrews University. (2012). Non-Verbal Communication Modes. Retrieved 11 23, 2012, from Intercultural Business Relations:

Cherry, K. (2012). Types of Nonverbal Communication. Retrieved 11 23, 2012, from Psychology:

International Assocation of Conference Interpreters. (2012). The Importance of non-verbal communication in professional interpretation. Retrieved 11 23, 2012, from Aiic:

Segal, J., Smith, M., & Jaffe, J. (2012, 09). Nonverbal Communication: Improving your nonverbal skills and reading body language. Retrieved 11 23, 2012, from HelpGuide:

SkillsYouNeed. (2012). Non-Verbal Communication. Retrieved 11 23, 2012, from Skills You Need: Helping you Develop Life Skills:

Image References

Someone else's art deserves recognition! The images presented in this article were borrowed from the following places:

Header Image: | Retrieved April 25, 2015

Image 1: | Retrieved November 23, 2012

Image 2: | Retrieved November 23, 2012

Image 3: | Retrieved November 23, 2012

Find Out How To Help