Humans communicate both verbally and nonverbally, but we tend to focus on words, which often don’t accurately represent our emotions. In fact, at least 65% of our communication is nonverbal.
Nonverbal communication can include signals such as eye contact, gestures, body language, facial expressions, and even one’s posture. So, how can you work to ensure that your verbal and nonverbal communications are in sync? How can you accurately read and interpret others? And how has the COVID-19 pandemic made nonverbal communication more difficult?
Continue reading to learn how to improve nonverbal communication.
How to Communicate Nonverbally
Effective nonverbal communication is important in everyday life, it could be the difference between closing a deal and deterring a buyer, or between gaining trust in an audience or looking unreliable.
Here are some tips on how to up your nonverbal game.
In Way of the Wolf, Jordan Belford asserts that all nonverbal communication begins with your appearance. The first thing people notice about you is your appearance, beginning with dress and grooming; you want to come across as professional and therefore credible.
Belfort recommends that salespeople (both men and women) wear suits, minimize cologne or perfume, and carry a leather briefcase to convey confidence, care, and quality. For men, he advises that any beard or mustache be close-cropped (unless facial hair is part of the culture) so you don’t come across as careless or sloppy; women should avoid extreme hairstyles or too much jewelry as these are distracting.
Research shows that people who dress well are more confident, feel more powerful, and are more focused. In studies, people who dressed better made fewer mistakes, did better at abstract thinking, and negotiated better deals than those who dressed casually.
Defining professional dress is somewhat subjective and depends on circumstances. People prefer that others’ clothing match their expectations—for example, doctors should wear scrubs, plumbers should wear appropriate uniforms, and business people should wear suits.
Most important from a selling perspective, people perceive those who dress professionally as leaders and seek support from them more often.
Confident Public Speaking
If you want to appear more confident, here’s some advice from Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo.
Rehearse holding your body in a way that suggests you’re sure of yourself and your opinions. If you fail to appear confident in your convictions, your audience will trust you and your opinions less. After all, why would they believe or agree with what you’re saying if you don’t seem certain of it yourself?
There are a number of things you can do to exude confidence through body language:
- Stand up straight—don’t slouch.
- Hold your head up high, rather than looking downwards.
- Make frequent eye contact with the audience.
- Resist the urge to fidget—for instance, play with your hair or scratch your nose.
If you’re not sure which of these confident actions you’re taking already and which you aren’t, video yourself making a speech. Then, watch the video and identify where your problem areas lie.
Fake It ‘Till You Make It
If you’re already feeling confident about your speech or presentation, confident body language will likely come naturally. However, if you’re feeling nervous or insecure, you may doubt your ability to hold your body in a way that’s contradictory to your emotions.
If you’re in the latter situation, don’t be afraid to “fake it ‘till you make it.” In other words, keep practicing confident body language no matter how insecure you actually feel. Studies have shown that doing so can actually make you feel more confident. Standing in a confident position increases your levels of testosterone —a hormone which, amongst other functions, increases your confidence—while simultaneously reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Researchers claim the so-called “power pose” is particularly effective at boosting confidence levels. This involves stretching your arms as wide as possible for two minutes.
Don’t Be Boring
As well as ensuring that your body language is confident, you also need to make sure that it’s not too boring. A common mistake that speakers make is staying still and rooted to the same spot for the entirety of their presentation. Such rigidity will make you seem dull and unenthusiastic about your topic. Instead, continually walk around your presentation space or stage, moving from one end to the other. Your constant movement will keep your audience engaged and make you seem more dynamic.
As you speak, don’t simply hide your hands in your pockets. Instead, use gestures to add emphasis to what you’re saying. For example, if you’re talking about how much a problem has grown in size, create a small circle with your hands and expand it. If you want to emphasize that you’ve personally experienced this problem, point at yourself.
Using hand gestures has a number of benefits:
- It prevents you from using your hands to fidget, thus helping you to exude confidence.
- Movement of any kind—including hand movement—makes you more interesting to watch, and therefore grips your audience’s attention.
- Studies have shown that making hand gestures will increase the audience’s confidence in you and what you’re saying.
Four Tips for Using Hand Gestures
Tip #1: Don’t use gestures too often. They’ll lose their impact and may become overly distracting. Only use gestures to punctuate crucial points of your presentation—for example, your main argument, or the conclusion of a story you’re telling.
Tip #2: Only use gestures that feel comfortable and natural to you. In particular, don’t try to mimic another person’s gesturing style—for example, that of a politician or famous speaker—if it’s out of your comfort zone. The gestures will seem forced and you’ll seem inauthentic.
Tip 3: Don’t overthink which gestures to use. Settle on those that feel the most natural and appropriate to the situation.
Tip #4: Keep your gestures within the “power sphere.” This is the area of the body from the eyes down to the navel. Placing your hands any lower than the navel suggests a lack of confidence and energy.
The ‘Eager Nonverbal’ Strategy
If you’re struggling to come up with appropriate hand gestures to use in your speech or presentation, consider applying the ‘eager nonverbal’ strategy. This is a three-pronged strategy that involves:
- Using hand movements that are expansive and animated: for example, opening your arms wide with your palms open.
- Using hand movements that project outward, towards the audience: for example, pointing in their direction.
- Leaning your body forward, again towards the audience.
Research has shown that using the eager nonverbal strategy can persuade others to act in the way you desire. For example, in one study, shoppers were more likely to buy candy from salespeople who implemented this strategy than from those who didn’t. In the case of a presentation, using the eager nonverbal strategy may help you to persuade your audience to adopt your idea or agree with your point of view.
Remember: As noted in the tips above, you should only implement someone else’s gesturing strategy—including the eager nonverbal strategy—if it feels natural and comfortable for you.
How COVID-19 Complicated Things
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for business people to conduct in-person meetings and negotiations, with such gatherings largely moving to virtual platforms like Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Working with other people without the benefit of face-to-face interaction created a number of pitfalls, including the inability to see the totality of a person’s body language (since they usually just appear as “talking heads’), difficulty of making direct eye contact, which inhibits trust-building, and a heightened awareness of racial, ethnic, age, and gender differences between ourselves and our counterparts, since video conferencing enables us to simultaneously see ourselves and the other person—something that doesn’t happen with in-person interactions and that may subconsciously force us to lean back on stereotypes.
It’s still not totally clear how the switch to video conferencing will affect social interactions over time, but there’s sure to be an impact on nonverbal communication is used and interpreted.
Men vs. Women
It would be impossible to talk about nonverbal communication without noting that not everybody communicates or interprets communication the same way. In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Daniel Goleman says that men and women communicate differently in many ways:
- Women seek emotional connection in conversation, while men prefer to talk about “things.” In one study, the most important thing for a woman’s marital satisfaction was good communication between her and her husband.
- Women are better at picking up verbal and nonverbal cues, and at expressing and articulating their feelings. Men are adept at minimizing “weak” emotions such as hurt, fear, guilt, or vulnerability.
- In terms of marriage, this means women come prepared to be the “emotional managers,” while men lack an understanding of how fundamental emotions are to the survival of a relationship.
One researcher found that in the dating phase men are much more likely to participate in the emotionally connected talking that women crave—but as the relationship goes on, men spend less time talking this way and want to connect through activities.
Because men have less capability with registering and interpreting others’ emotional cues, husbands don’t notice their wives’ emotional states until they’re more intense–a woman has to be that much sadder to get her husband to notice, let alone ask what’s making her sad. Women, as the emotional manager of a relationship, can get burnt out not only by trying to manage their male partner’s emotions, but by having to manage their own stronger and more neglected emotions by themselves.
Ironically, because men generally have a more shallow understanding of emotions, husbands also generally see their relationships in a rosier hue than their wives—everything from sex to family relationships to finances seem on average better to men than to women. Women generally complain more vocally about their marriage than men, especially in less satisfied couples. This is precisely because they are trying to work out emotional issues and resolve grievances in their role as emotional managers.
How to Read Nonverbal Cues
Words alone tell you just a sliver of what your counterpart is really saying. In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss urges you to watch for inconsistencies between words, tone, and body language.
Think of someone who’s saying pleasant things like “Good morning” or “How are you?” but with a blank expression or in a tone devoid of any warmth. This is why telemarketers are told to smile, even when they’re speaking to people on the phone—the customer can “hear” the friendly expression on the telemarketer’s face.
Voss writes that you can use labels to further shed light on the incongruence between someone’s words and nonverbal body language. If they’re saying all the right things but you doubt their commitment, you can say, “I’m glad you say you agree, but it seems like there was some hesitation there. It’s important that we get this right and that you feel comfortable.” This will make them feel respected, and will make you a trustworthy partner in their eyes.
How to Read People
Reading people’s nonverbal cues isn’t just a matter of noticing what their bodies and voices are doing. You have to actually feel the same physical cues in yourself to empathize viscerally.
- For example, when psychologist Milton Erickson saw one of his sisters tense her neck, to figure out what she was feeling, he had to tense his neck too. Only then did he realize her tension was caused by her discomfort in his presence.
Learning to read people involves learning two sub-skills, explored in The Laws of Human Nature:
Skill #1: Observation
We all learned observation as children when we relied on other people to help us survive but couldn’t yet talk. Around age five, however, the skill started to languish because we had gained some independence from our parents and could focus on ourselves as a separate entity—we acquired new, attention-needing problems, and didn’t have the mental bandwidth for anyone other than ourselves.
There are some dos and don’ts of observation:
1. Start small or else you’ll overwhelm yourself. Don’t try to read the whole body at once.
- For example, in a conversation, try to identify just one or two facial expressions that indicate that a person’s words aren’t giving the whole picture. Do this with multiple people, and only after you’ve gotten used to the face, move on to the voice and other body language. Write down the patterns you notice.
2. Focus only on observation. Don’t try to interpret what you notice, and especially don’t try to describe your thoughts in words.
3. People watch. Go to a public place and observe people. This exercise will allow you to watch people without having to maintain a conversation at the same time. Guess things about people based on what you see, such as their personality or profession.
4. Be subtle. Use only peripheral glances to spot clues. You’ll make people uncomfortable if you stare at them.
5. Encourage people to talk. Mirror them or respond with something that proves you’re listening. The longer they talk, the more they’ll communicate nonverbally.
6. Establish a baseline. When you’re studying a certain person, watch her interact with a variety of people to figure out her default emotion. Then, pay attention to changes from this baseline.
- (Shortform example: If a normally cheerful person is smiling, that doesn’t tell you much. If a normally neutral person is smiling, however, that probably indicates emotion.)
7. Study the cues of a known emotion. When someone is about to do an action that most people feel the same way about (for example, most people get nervous before exams), look at what their bodies and voices are doing and file these cues under things people do when they’re nervous.
8. Watch out for mixed signals. A mixed signal is a discrepancy between words and nonverbal cues. Nonverbal communication more strongly reflects negative than positive emotions, so when you see conflicting signals, assume the negative emotion is what the person is actually feeling.
- For example, if someone acts happy to see you, but you detect tension in her voice, she’s probably more uncomfortable than happy.
9. Remember that all behavior is a form of communication. Clothing choices, silences, possessions—all of this communicates something.
10. Notice your own nonverbal communication. This will make you more likely to notice other people’s cues and the emotions that prompted them. You’ll also improve your control of your own cues.
As you practice, you’ll improve at multitasking conversation and observation and you’ll notice more and more cues. You’ll start to physically anticipate and feel other people’s emotions.
There are some common observational mistakes to avoid:
1. Don’t assign cues to emotions universally. Different people may use the same nonverbal cue to express different emotions.
- For example, one person may speak louder when they’re excited; another may do the exact same cue when they’re upset and have a completely different cue when they’re excited.
2. Don’t let your biases sneak in. If you like someone, you’ll be inclined to interpret all of their cues as positive.
3. Avoid Othello’s error, which is a type of bias in which you correctly match the cue to the emotion, but incorrectly guess the source of the emotion because you’re predisposed to attribute it to something in particular.
- For example, in the play Othello, Othello questions his wife about adultery. She’s nervous during the conversation, which he assumes means she’s cheated on him, but in fact, she’s nervous because his questioning is so aggressive and intimidating.
4. Don’t be taken in by display rules. Different cultures have different ideas of what’s socially acceptable, and people’s behavior may stem from these rules.
Skill #2: Interpretation
Now that you’re starting to see nonverbal cues, it’s time to figure out what they mean. Here are some cues associated with common emotions:
The following cues often indicate that someone likes you:
- Relaxing of the face, especially the forehead and mouth areas
- Blood rushing to the face in the case of love
- Genuine smiling, which widens the eyes and pulls the cheeks up, and is usually a response to something. Fake smiling can affect the eyes if the smile is broad, but is often mistimed.
- Relaxed lips
- Opening of the area around the eyes by raising eyebrows, widening eyes, and dilating pupils
- Voice pitches higher and has a purring quality, and there’s no hesitation or tension
- Standing closer to you
- Loose arms
- Nodding while you’re talking
- Mirroring: At its most extreme, the other person matches your breathing.
Use this knowledge to:
- Recognize these cues when they’re directed at you. This will tell you who likes you, which is valuable knowledge because it’s easiest to influence people who like you.
- Direct these cues at others to make them like you. People tend to like those who like them.
The following cues often indicate dislike:
- Squinting when you say something
- Rolling the eyes when you talk about a strong opinion
- Crossing the arms when you make a good point
- Going quiet
- Frowning or sneering while looking down
- Pursing the lips
- Tensing the neck
- Turning the body or feet away
- Tension throughout the body
- Avoiding you or responding slowly to your emails
It’s harder to notice the dislike cues than like cues for two reasons:
- Most people don’t like conflict, and they don’t like to think about people not liking them. Even if you do notice the cues or feel that something’s wrong, you tend to ignore your observations.
- People often try to hide their dislike because it’s not socially appropriate. (People do sometimes hide the like cues as well because it lets the other person know they’re influenceable.)
To compensate for these difficulties, keep in mind the following:
1. People are more likely to show these cues as part of a microexpression, which is an expression that appears for less than a second. These expressions come out either when someone isn’t aware of what they’re feeling, or when they’re trying to quash it but don’t quite manage. (It’s very hard to control the facial muscles.) To notice microexpressions, use your peripheral vision.
- For example, King Louis XIV would sneak up on people to see how they reacted to his presence when they didn’t have a chance to prepare their faces in advance.
2. People might give one of these cues as part of a mixed-signal. This is because the tension between maintaining a polite exterior but maintaining secret tension is uncomfortable, and the negative part of the mixed-signal allows for the release of tension.
- (Shortform example: Someone might glare at you while complimenting you.)
3. People might say something general but direct it at you personally via body language.
- For example, in The Charterhouse of Parma, a prince talks to Count Mosca about love. However, while the conversation is general, the prince’s eye glints and he smiles in a way that suggests everything he’s saying is specifically about the count.
4. People might indicate their dislike by using words, such as sarcasm, but accompany their speech with positive body language. If this happens multiple times, you should consider the words.
5. People might give off a lot of these cues because their baseline is more negative than average. Compare how they are with you to how they act with others—if they don’t treat you any differently, they probably don’t dislike you.
Make sure you see signs of hostility multiple times before deciding that someone dislikes you. If you have concerns, you can even try to provoke dislike cues. For example, if you think someone is envious of you, talk about a recent success (without bragging) and look for microexpressions.
Use this knowledge to catch hostility early and take any of the following steps to mitigate any danger:
- Goad the hostile person into some embarrassing action that harms their platform and reach.
- Work hard to get them to like you.
- Avoid them.
Dominance and Deception
In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene also discusses the nonverbal communication of dominance and deception.
Dominance is almost entirely communicated nonverbally because while human social evolution has resulted in the formation of hierarchy, nobody likes acknowledging this structure or their relative position.
The following cues demonstrate confidence and power, or a desire for power. (If someone doesn’t have power yet but displays all the cues, there’s a good chance they’ll get power because the cues attract others.)
- Relaxed body and face
- Slight closing of the eyelids
- Making frequent eye contact
- Less frequent smiling
- Smiling tightly in response to something said
- Touching people, such as back pats
- Tall posture
- Taking up physical space in a meeting and creating space around themselves
- Arriving late
- Punctuating (when there’s an argument, they’ll find a way to make it look like the other person started it)
- Showing feelings such as boredom and annoyance
- Being imitated by others
- In couples, the dominant partner might pay attention to others but not to the partner.
- In couples, one partner might do something negative (like drinking or faking an illness) to force sympathy and help from the other.
- Men, in particular, feel entitled to control conversations, walk with purposeful strides, have a strong handshake, and have a tall posture.
- Women in leadership positions exhibit a businesslike but still warm expression that’s also calm and confident. As more women come into power, these characteristics may be more universally associated with power.
- For example, German chancellor Angela Merkel keeps her face still while listening to others, doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t smile too much, and uses her expression to attack people instead of her words.
People who have power but are scared to lose it exhibit the following cues:
- Speaking with tension or hesitation
- High-pitched voices
- Talking animatedly without moving the body
- Frequent blinking and controlled eye movements
- Nervous wide eyes
- Fake smiling and laughing
- Touching themselves to calm themselves
- Being over assertive to cover up insecurity
- Giving off mixed signals
- For example, French President Nicolas Sarkozy interrupted people and patted them on the back, but he was unable to control the nervous twitch of his foot.
Use this knowledge to:
- Identify up-and-coming leaders who have positive energy and associate yourself with them.
- Avoid arrogant, power-hungry people.
- Gain power by taking advantage of insecure people’s weaknesses. (This can backfire though—if they go down, sometimes they’ll drag you with them.)
Humans are inherently gullible because we want to believe that nice-sounding things—such as that all people are good—are true.
People purposefully use the following cues to try to distract you from whatever it is they’re really feeling and thinking:
- Overanimation, such as smiling frequently, joking, and being very friendly
- Expressing conviction
- Expressing mixed signals in which one part of the body is expressive but other parts are tense. The face and mouth are easiest to control, so this is often the animated part, but the animation can also be gesturing.
- Freezing when questioned
The best deceivers are aware of the above cues and do the opposite by:
- Stilling their faces and acting serious
- Giving logical explanations
- Acting competent
- Being boring
- For example, Victor Lustig, a master con artist, would bore his marks with details about bonds and securities.
To compensate for these difficulties, pay attention to which nonverbal cues accompany specific words and speech because it’s hard to get the timing right. For example, someone might shake their fist in anger but do it slightly before or after they would actually be feeling the emotion if it were real.
Use your knowledge of deception cues to:
- Ignore white lies. White lies are low stakes and a part of social convention (it would be rude to be honest all the time). It’s best to just ignore this kind of deception because finding out the truth would only hurt your feelings.
- Avoid falling for cons. If you think you’re being deceived, the best thing to do is to let the deceiver keep telling their story so that you have more time to look for nonverbal cues. Then, ask an uncomfortable question and look for microexpressions.
Putting It to the Test
Now that you’ve learned the ins and outs of nonverbal communication, try to apply what you learned to your daily life, whether that be at work, in your relationships, or in your decision-making process. Pay more attention to the body language of others and see if you can interpret their true feelings. Put more effort into controlling your own body language and see if others respond to you differently. Also, check out our website for full summaries of the books mentioned in this article such as Talk Like TED, Never Split the Difference, The Laws of Human Nature, and hundreds more!