Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

Basic Definition of Workplace and Interpersonal Nonverbal Communication

Coworkers discussing project in office
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Nonverbal communication is the transmission of information in addition to words in a communication. The sender conveys information to a receiver by means of:

  • Body language: The way a person sits; stands; moves arms, hands, and feet; other subtle movements.
  • Facial expression: Human faces are incredibly expressive including the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and any other movement. Emotions such as anger, happiness, hurt, and boredom are all easily expressed with facial movements.
  • Posture: How you carry yourself including bearing, stance, rigidity, uprightness. Whether you are leaning back comfortably, sitting rigidly on the edge of your seat, or leaning back with your eyes close, you convey a message via your posture and positioning.
  • Eye contact: People often attribute trustworthiness to people who speak while maintaining good eye contact and vice versa. Eye contact is also used to convey interest and emotions, and to promote rapport with the receiver of the message. It is also used to feign interest, mislead, and fake interest.
  • Gestures: Especially hand gestures are rich conveyors of communication. They punctuate the spoken word and add meaning. Less conscious gestures such as scratching your nose, stroking your hair, tugging on your clothes, placing your hands on your hips, and waving communicate messages advertently or inadvertently.
  • Signs: Signs and other articles with words, pictures or symbols are considered to be nonverbal communication.
  • Clothing and other appurtenances such as briefcases, safety glasses, and so forth: Types of clothing and your appearance send powerful nonverbal messages. Some of the messages are intentional as when the employee wears a shirt with her favorite athletic team emblazoned on the back or the employee that wears a conservative, business-like suit every day.

    Other messages may be unintentional. The wearer of the conservative suits may appear unapproachable when that was not his intention. The wearer of a low-cut blouse may or may not want her coworkers to find her sexy. At best, however, she sends a mixed message.
  • Office décor: At work, how you decorate your office also sends messages to employees who enter. Where you place your desk, the distance between your seat and those of visitors, whether furniture separates you from coworkers all speak powerfully and nonverbally.
  • Tone of voice and other aspects of paralinguistics: Paralinguistics is vocal communication separate from the actual words used and includes such factors as inflection, pitch, pacing, pauses, and loudness. It is a form of nonverbal communication which is useful for telephone and in-person interaction.
  • Touch: Touch is a powerful method of nonverbal communication. A pat on the back, a hug, a person reaching out to touch your hand in sympathy communicate with or without accompanying words.
  • Physical space: Just as your use of physical space in your office telegraphs a message to the receiver, so does the space that you surround yourself with when working or communicating. Most North Americans prefer about 18 inches of space around our physical person when we communicate with others. Anything closer is viewed as too close and, especially in a work setting, too intimate.

    In one of the funniest failed communication efforts that I have ever seen, a student from another country was trying to explain something to the university’s registrar. He wanted to get closer to her so he could help her understand why he was right. She wanted her 18 inches of space. So they were literally chasing each other across the office. Every time he moved closer, she moved away. Not every occurrence speaks this loudly, but a protection of that private space is swift.

    Why Nonverbal Communication Matters

    Used in conjunction with the verbal communication of words, nonverbal communication helps you relay messages that are clearly understood by your intended receivers. You can punctuate, reinforce, emphasize, and enliven your communication with any of the above methods of nonverbal communication.

    As a useful tool, you should consciously use nonverbal communication to make certain that you are communicating your intended message as effectively as possible. Shared meaning is the desired outcome in any communication and nonverbal communication helps create shared meaning.

    When a mismatch exists between what you are stating verbally and the nonverbal signals you are sending, the nonverbal communication is believed by your receivers. For example, when an employee tells you that everything is fine, but everything about his tone, facial expression, body posture, and failure to smile are incongruent, you don’t believe the words.

    For good or ill, nonverbal communication can help you or haunt you. Most significantly, recognize the power it has to affect the outcomes of your communication. Whether you are speaking to the whole company at a company meeting, chatting with a coworker on the phone, or talking to your boss in her office, nonverbal communication affects the interaction.

    You can practice and manage your nonverbal communication to convey your messages more effectively. Or, you can allow your nonverbal communication to make you appear ineffective, a sloppy communicator, or an employee whose mixed messages are not trustworthy. Why not use nonverbal communication to your advantage?

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