Let’s say you’re meeting someone for the first time, whether you’re calling on them in their office for a job interview, you’re meeting a blind date for the first time at a coffee shop, or even a chance encounter with a stranger.
When does communication between you begin? The truth is, you both start a deep and meaningful exchange of communication far before the first word is spoken; from the moment you see each other. In fact, by the time you say “hello,” chances are you’ve exchanged thousands of nonverbal messages just in those few seconds, many of them which will make a strong impression and dictate the tenor of your future relationship. In fact, nonverbal cues are estimated to make up about 90 percent of all communications.
Therefore, the insights you’ll gain by paying attention to nonverbals as you interact and communicate will make a profound difference in your life, from the workplace to your relationships and everywhere in between.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is any and all communication that is not spoken or written, or more accurately, any communication that doesn’t have a direct verbal translation.
For a more comprehensive definition, we can learn from renowned communications researchers, Tortoriello, Blott, and DeWine. They defined non-verbal communication as "The exchange of messages primarily through non-linguistic means, including kinesics (body language), facial expressions and eye contact, tactile communication, space and territory, environment, paralanguage (vocal but non-linguistic cues), and the use of silence and time."
That definition certainly opens up a lot to consider, as there are many elements that go into nonverbal communications.
Some fascinating facts on the power of nonverbal communication:
In a single face-to-face interaction with one person, you might exchange up to 10,000 nonverbal cues in the span of less than one minute.
The average person spends about 75 percent of their waking hours communicating their knowledge, ideas, and thoughts. That number could be much higher in a fast-paced work or social setting.
According to Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, verbal cues provide 7 percent of the meaning of any message; vocal cues, 38 percent; and facial expressions, 55 percent. That means that our nonverbal – including vocal cues but not language – make up about 93 percent of our communication.
Non-verbal communication is paramount for making good first impressions because, by the time you open your mouth to speak, the other person's impression has already been mostly formed. Research demonstrates that we form our first impressions that are about 80% accurate in only 100 milliseconds (less than the time it takes to blink.)
In fact, how you say something and your nonverbal communications are far more important than what you say. Studies show that nonverbal communication has 65 percent to 93 percent more impression and lasting impact than the actual words you speak.
Our nonverbal also override our verbal messages. In fact, research shows that when a person communicates a message where their nonverbal and verbal messages don’t match up, the receiver almost always gives credence to and believes the nonverbal message.
Why are non-verbals so revealing?
Language and structured verbal communication is primarily generated and sent from the brain's neocortex. However, nonverbal cues are mostly sent from the "emotional brain," not the neocortex, so it's harder to send inauthentic or disingenuous cues.
Basically, it’s almost impossible to “fake” non-verbals on a scale and with the consistency to be believable.
That’s because, with 10,000 non-verbal cues disseminated in less than a minute of face-to-face conversation, it’s also nearly impossible for you to filter and control every signal you are sending off.
So what nonverbal cues should you be aware of?
Our first contact with someone, whether in a business setting or meeting them socially, usually starts with a handshake, and believe it or not, there are a lot of nonverbal signals and messages communicated with that simple physical task. To make a strong, bold, and confident impression, be the one who puts your hand out first and shake firmly, palm to palm.
There is probably no greater method of nonverbal expression than eye contact. You should initiate eye contact and fix your gaze on their eyes for two or three seconds. Eye contact can mean several things, like demonstrating your power, confidence, and creating warm, genuine feelings of trust, openness, and a personal connection.
Meanwhile, breaking eye contact, looking away, or shifting your eyes up can mean you have something to hide, you are disinterested, you are not “in the moment” with that person, or you are anxious or evasive for some reason.
While we can try to put a smile on our face, our facial expressions usually give away our true feelings. There are just too many muscles and movements for the human mind to keep track of so a person’s authentic thoughts usually come out on their face, many of them around the eyes or the mouth.
A smile that tightens, raised eyebrows, a crease in the forehead, etc. can all convey concern, frustration, or even anger, while the opposite is true if someone is open, relaxed, and comfortable.
Hand movements we make, especially while we’re speaking, send thousands of simultaneous nonverbal cues. A clenched fist, crossing hands, tapping fingers, or pointing all can exhibit aggression, frustration, anxiety, or defensiveness. Meanwhile, if someone's hands are loose and natural, open palms, and used to accentuate points, especially questions, then it indicates being receptive and even feeling a connection with the messenger.
Of course, if someone stands up straight or sits erect then it conveys a strong, confident, or even professional appearance. But pay attention to shifts in posture if you want to read someone's feelings or thoughts, too. If someone leans or sits back, they are not engaged and perhaps disinterested or "turned off." But if they lean into you or bring their face and body closer, they’re interested, open, and paying close attention.
Mirroring and matching
If you’re trying to gain someone’s trust, attention, or form a bond, whether in business or a social situation, pay attention to their nonverbals. Do your best to match their body movements, posture, vocal cues, and comfort level to gauge what is appropriate. Mirroring someone’s non-verbals – authentically and subtly – is a great way to make them feel more comfortable and engaged.
You have to be very careful when making physical contact with someone but, at a certain point, a pat on the shoulder, touching someone’s arm, a hug, etc. may be appropriate. If it’s done correctly and at the right time, it will be well received by the other person and build feelings of intimacy, personal connection, and trust.
Taking Up Space
How someone stands, sits, and how they expand or contract their body to take up space sends strong messages. If someone "spreads out," putting their arms on the back of chairs, standing in a power stance with their feet set apart, etc., then it conveys confidence, comfort, and authority. Studies have shown that even choosing the center or head seat at a conference table, having the higher chair, the bigger desk, etc. are all bold advantages.
The sequencing of nonverbal cues and messages makes a big difference. In business - especially if you are subordinate or want to gain someone’s trust, business, sale, etc. – you should be the one to initiate a handshake, a touch, and eye contact.
In any speaking dynamic, the person who initiates or speaks first usually ends up dictating or controlling the conversation. By setting the topic and asking questions or points that beg to be answered or addressed, the first speaker has a chance to steer the conversation, which could be a huge advantage. Or, you may want to be a good active listener by consciously allowing the other person to set the conversation.