Interpersonal Communication: It’s Not Just What You Say

There are many different types of nonverbal communication.Together, these nonverbal signals and cues communicate your interest and investment in others—even when you’re not saying a word. In fact, you can’t not communicate!

It’s What You Do: Nonverbal Communication and Body Language

Facial Expressions

The human face is extremely expressive, able to reveal countless emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, many facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures.

Even if you’re known for your “poker face,” the small movements of your facial muscles will transmit at least some of what you’re feeling to a focused observer.

Body Movements and Posture

This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, bearing, stance and subtle movements. Consider how your perceptions of people are affected by the way they sit, walk, stand up or hold their head. The way you move and carry yourself communicates a wealth of information to the world.

If you are a leader, the way you enter a room can set the tone for the day and reinforce (or contradict!) the culture of your organization.

As a team member, your lack of interest in an important project may well be broadcast by the way you sit during a team meeting.

Gestures

Gestures are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. We wave, point, beckon, and use our hands when we’re arguing or speaking animatedly—expressing ourselves with gestures often without thinking. Unlike many other forms of non-verbal communication, the meaning of gestures can be very different across cultures and regions, so it’s important to be careful to avoid misinterpretation. For example, the “thumbs up” gesture can mean anything from “let him live” (ancient Rome), to “yourself” (sign language), a male person (Japan), or an extremely rude insult (some Middle Eastern and African countries).

Eye contact

Since the visual sense is dominant for most people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, including interest, affection, hostility or attraction. Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for gauging the other person’s response.

Much like gestures, though, eye contact can also be interpreted differently in different cultures. While North American, Australian and many European cultures interpret strong eye contact as a sign of interest, sincerity and trustworthiness; sustained eye contact can be considered disrespectful (Japanese and some Latino cultures), or simply inappropriate in other cultures (eye contact between genders in Muslim cultures).

Touch

We communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the messages given by the following: a firm handshake, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, a reassuring pat on the back, a patronizing pat on the head or a controlling grip on your arm.

Observe yourself and others to see how and when touch is being used and what it is communicating. Remember that the acceptability of touch, and the meaning it conveys, will also vary based on relationship and from one culture to another.

Even the firm handshake, a cornerstone of credibility in North American business interactions, is inappropriate in some circumstances. For example, Orthodox Judaism and Islam prohibit physical contact between men and women; members of these religions will typically avoid shaking hands with the opposite gender. In Japan, a bow is more common than a handshake and in India, many people will offer “Namaste” instead of a handshake (palms together in front of the chest).

Space

Have you ever felt uncomfortable during a conversation because the other person was standing too close, invading your space?

We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on personal preference, culture, the situation and the closeness of the relationship. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy, aggression, dominance or affection.

In the workplace, a supervisor or manager encroaching on someone’s physical space can be seen as misusing positional power, since it can be quite intimidating; just as crowding a co-worker might be misinterpreted as either aggression or unwanted attention.

It’s How You Say it: Voice

We also communicate a lot with our voices, even when we’re not using words or displaying any physical signals. Nonverbal speech elements such as tone, pitch, volume, inflection, rhythm and rate are important communication elements.

When we speak, other people “read” our voices in addition to listening to our words—this is why face-to-face communication is best for important conversations. These nonverbal speech elements provide subtle but powerful clues into our true feelings and what we really mean. Think about how tone of voice, for example, can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection or confidence.

Tips for Mastering Nonverbal Communication

1.      Be aware of your facial expressions and how you carry yourself.

a.       View yourself on video if possible.

b.      Ask a trusted friend, family member or co-worker for feedback about the messages you might be unconsciously conveying.

2.      If you work with a culturally diverse team:

a.       Ask your co-workers if there are any common gestures which have negative meanings in their culture, so you can avoid using them inadvertently.

b.      Ask about eye contact and whether the standard practices in your workplace cause them any discomfort.

c.       Find out whether they need more physical space and whether there are any issues with what may be considered inconsequential touching in your workplace.

d.      Share how you feel and react to the various elements of nonverbal communication as well, so you can arrive at a better mutual understanding.

3.      When preparing for an international posting, research the meaning of various gestures and other nonverbal communication practices in the country where you will be working, so you can avoid and/or incorporate certain behaviors appropriately.

4.      Observe how people react when you’re speaking.

a.       If they pull back, maybe your volume and intensity are intimidating.

b.      If you find conversations escalating to conflict when you did not intend to antagonize, you may need to work on your tone of voice.

c.       Remember also to pace your speech appropriately and allow people the right amount of time to absorb and respond.

Remember, when you're communicating (i.e. all the time!), it’s not just what you say. 

When interacting with others, they will take as much meaning from what you do and how you say something, as they will from what you say! 

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