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Boost Nonverbal Communication Skills for Success

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

Communication is of fundamental importance to build communities, to engage and to build relationships with fellow human beings. Communication skills are vital to express ideas, feelings, and emotions. These skills are likewise instrumental in dispersing knowledge, motivating, informing and in persuading. Judiciously and appropriately used, communication skills become the language of leadership and the key to personal and professional success.

Nonverbal communication is a critical aspect of communication skills. However, the recent advent of communication technology has made an indelible mark on its users and consequently weakening this skill. The usage of cell phones, social media, text messages, and other such platforms have made a direct impact on the communication behaviors of the current generation. Research shows that "lack of face-to-face interaction has reduced the nonverbal grasping power of individuals" (techspirited.com). This technology "... greatly limits our ability to communicate nonverbally ... 60-65% of our communication is nonverbal, and nonverbal messages are perceived as more trustworthy and genuine. So right off the bat, we lost about 60% of our message when we are communicating through text, email, or other written communication" (Technology Impacts Communication).

According to the American Management Association, "Nonverbal communication is important in the workplace because it affects the work environment. What you communicate nonverbally can expose how you feel. If your nonverbal communications skills are poor, you may be communicating negativity and making your coworkers uncomfortable." Denise F. & Marianne S. state in their book The Impact of Nonverbal Behavior in the Job Interview, that there is a direct relationship between positive nonverbal behavior and recruiter evaluation. Nonverbal communication (NVC) is also the most valuable tool in interpersonal and emotional situations.

To achieve success with nonverbal communication, it is vital to understand what it is, what its various types are, and how to enhance it.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication means sending and receiving messages without the use of words. Various scientists have defined nonverbal communication as follows:

"...all communication that occurs without words (body movements, space, time, touch, voice patterns, color, layout, the design of surroundings." (Lesikar and Pettit)

"...communication that takes place through non-verbal cues: as a gesture, eye contact, facial expression, clothing, and space." (L. C. Bove)

These and other definitions tell us that NVC is not based on the use of language, but on the messages that are sent and received through multiple behavioral cues.

Various types of Nonverbal communication?

If anyone wants to have a competitive edge in getting a job, in business or in establishing relationships, then attention should be paid to the multiple types of NVC.

Body language (Kinesics)

"Body language is a very powerful nonverbal communication tool. We had body language before we had speech, and apparently, 80% of what you understand in a conversation is read through the body, not the words." - Deborah Bull

Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (1952) coined the term kinesics and defined it as "the study of body-motion as related to the non-verbal aspects of interpersonal communication." Birdwhistell also stated that about 30 to 35 percent of communication is by words, and 65% of communication is by body language. The essentials of body language are posture, facial expressions, hand and head movements, and gestures.

Vocal Variety (Paralanguage)

Vocal variety refers to communicating using varying vocal acoustics such as pitch, rate, tone of voice, inflection, and volume. The conceptual framework of paralanguage was developed by George L. Trager in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it was in 1967 when Albert Mehrabian, a famous psychologist conducted his ground working research on communication, and stated that 38% of a message is based on vocal variety. "It is not what you say but how you say that matters." Tone, pitch, pace, pause, and voice inflection show if a person is convincing, thoughtful or not during negotiations, customer-service, or in sales talk.

Space and Distance (Proxemics)

The science of Proxemics signifies that the distance and space between communicators determine their level of intimacy and familiarity with one another. Edward T. Hall, a cultural anthropologist, coined the term of Proxemics in 1963. According to Hall, "Proxemics remains a hidden component of interpersonal communication that is uncovered through observation and strongly influenced by culture."

Touch (Haptics)

Touching or Haptic communication includes handshakes, holding hands, kissing, back slapping, high five, pat on the shoulder or even brushing an arm. Research shows that touching "is our primary language of compassion and a primary means for spreading compassion." (Power-of-Touch) A loving touch releases oxytocin or the "bonding hormone" that reduces stress, boosts mood and strengthens the immune systems. (Keltner) To deny touch is to deprive oneself of life's greatest joy and comfort.

Physical Appearance/Artifacts/Objects

Physical appearance, artifacts, and objects we surround ourselves with communicate about ourselves to others and about others to us. It is vital for two reasons (Body as Nonverbal Communication).

  1. Physical appearance reveals a great deal about who we are, and
  2. The physical appearance of other people impacts our perception of them, how we communicate with them, how approachable they are, and how attractive and unattractive they are

How to enhance Nonverbal Communication Skills

Posture. To project sincerity, respect, and empathy in any situation, it is best to show a relaxed, confident and comfortable body posture (Forbes-2017). Open stance shows interest and indicates that we are listening. Sit or stand with a frontal body appearance to another person. Arms and hands should be open, relaxed on the side. Do not fold or cross hands over the chest or cross legs. By crossing hands and legs, we create barriers and put ourselves in defensive position. Lean a bit towards the person to whom you are communicating with to show that you care. Do not slouch, stoop or hunch.

Women, in particular, need to pay attention to their posture as they often make themselves small in public settings. According to Amy Cuddy "The men in her Harvard classes shoot their arms straight up to answer questions, while the women tend toward a bent-elbow wave. Along with touching the face or neck or crossing the ankles tightly while sitting, these postures are associated with powerlessness and intimidation and keep people back from expressing who they really are."

Gestures. "A gesture is a specific bodily movement that reinforces a verbal message or conveys a particular thought or emotion. Although gestures may be made with head, shoulders, or even the legs and feet, most are made with hands and arms." (Gestures).

Hand gestures with open palms toward the audience show that you are not hiding anything. Do not touch face or hair, or attract attention to other parts of the body while conversing. Do not tap your fingers on a table, play with a pen or pencil, or look sideways to the person. These self-grooming and distracting actions in a formal situation are considered amateur and unprofessional. Mirror the other person's expressions to show that you are following what is being said.

Facial Expressions. "My words always get me into troubles. And if not my words, it is my facial expressions."- Manasa Rao Saarloos.

During business or social situations, a smile or a frown can make or break a conversation. Avoid negative facial expressions such as projecting anger, disgust, or contempt, raising eye-brows, appearing bored or uninterested. Projecting positive facial expressions by smiling, nodding, and conveying a happy face will definitely make a better impression.


When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is from eye contact that we make a first impression of a person. Eyes also provide immediate feedback on whether a person is interested or not.

When speaking to one person, hold the gaze on eyes from 5 -10 seconds. Holding gaze for longer than 10 seconds could make the person uncomfortable. After 5 seconds, break your gaze by looking at something nearby and then look again at the eyes. While talking to multiple people in a room, do not look only at one person. Give them equal eye contact. Move your gaze about every 2-3 seconds.

If you are listening, look at the eyes of the speaker for 5-10 seconds and then break your gaze by nodding, or by saying "yes" or "no".

Vocal Variety

Vocal variety can be boosted by the following techniques:

Space and Distance (Proxemics)

Maintain your distance depending upon the situation, familiarity with the speaker, and the occasion. In business and social situations, a speaker should be thoroughly familiar with and cautious of multiple situational and territorial factors based on the culture, social norms, and degree of familiarity with the group. General guidelines as specified for the North American Culture by E. T. Hall:

  1. Intimate distance. It varies from touching to 18 inches, and is reserved for intimate relationships
  2. Personal distance is from 18 inches to 4 feet. This is usually reserved for family members and friends.
  3. Social Distance - Its zone is from 4 feet to 12 feet and is for acquaintances.
  4. Public Distance- Distance is more than 12 feet from the speaker and is mostly for public speaking.

Touch (Haptics)

Acceptable touching levels are cultural and society based. However, this vital communication can be boosted by paying attention when it is task-related, professional based and necessary to get the job done. Examples of task-related touching are when doctors, nurses or health care professionals touch to help a patient. Attention should be paid not to cross personal and social boundaries by making the other person uncomfortable.

Caution should also be observed while dealing with clients and business associates. Make sure that touching in the initial stages is kept to the minimum level through a proper handshake, not by giving a hug, tight embrace or by being close to the body of another person.

Physical Appearance/Artifacts/Objects

"Consciously or unconsciously we judge people based on their physical appearance. Our weight, height, clothing, piercings, tattoos, and countless other physical aspect all communicate something about us." (Higher_Education).

Research shows that physical appearance is vital importance on getting and keeping a job (Social Psychology). Physical appearance should be appropriate for professional and business situation. Overdressing may distract while not taking care of appearance may indicate that a person is not really sincere and confident.

Match your physical appearance to the position, social status, age, and work environment.


Nonverbal communication plays a critical and a substantial role in our everyday life situations. People spend more time sending and receiving non-verbal cues than communicating verbally. The knowledge and proficiency of its various types is vital to boost personal and professional success. Honing your nonverbal communication will enhance your chances of success in your personal and professional endeavors.

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