The value and importance of understanding non-verbal communication
By Rachael Bonaiuto, LPC
”The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter F. Drucker
Why Non-Verbal Communication?
The World English Dictionary defines nonverbal communication as “those aspects of communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, that do not involve verbal communication but which may include nonverbal aspects of speech itself”. There are popular statistics asserting that most communication (75%-90%) is nonverbal and that nonverbal behavior is the most crucial aspect of communication. And wholesome communication, as you probably already know from personal experience, defines the health of so many of your relationships. Further, healthy relationships are the pillars to a quality life with increased joy, abundance, health, and happiness.
So why don’t you pay more attention to your body language, your posture and gestures, your tone of voice, eye contact and somatic patterning? We live in a culture that places so much value on the spoken and written word, on what you say and how you articulate your experience. If it’s true that what we pay attention to grows, and conversely, what we don’t pay attention to dies away, it is important to acknowledge, attend to, and develop our non-verbal communication skills in order to engage in thriving relationships with our children, partners, co-workers, friends and fellow citizens. So, how do you begin to tune into your non-verbal communications and what impact will it have on your life?
”The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
How do you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
Paying Attention and Practicing are two foundational elements for your non-verbal communication development. From wherever you are in this very moment, read the following words and then pause – noticing right now: how you are sitting, the pace, rhythm and quality of your breath, the angle of your spine, the location of your feet and the direction of your gaze. Don’t feel like you need to change any of these things, in any way, just simply notice. As you survey and take stock, you are paying attention. The practicing part comes in the frequency and diligence with which you take stock, survey and notice your body. Do it often – as you are driving your child to school, standing in line at the bank, talking to a friend in need, asking for something you want, ordering your morning coffee, telling someone you love them – what is your body doing? What are you communicating without words?
Below are a few areas to identify, pay attention to and engage in practice. Let’s take an example of an everyday interaction – sitting at the dinner table with your family – and examine these various aspects of non-verbal communication.
Posture – How are you sitting at the table? Where are your elbows and hands? Is your spine upright or are you slouching? Are you facing the other family members at the table or are you positioned away from them in some way? Do you feel grounded? Are your feet on the floor? Is your crown open toward the sky? Are you ‘awake’ in your posture?
Proxemics (Personal Space) – Where are you in relationship to the others at the table? Have you distanced yourself in a way that feels appropriate? Are you invading another’s space? Do you feel that someone is too close to you? Are you wishing you were a bit closer or further away? Is it okay to move your positioning? Are you ‘awake’ in your personal space?
Gestures – How are you expressing yourself? Are you using your hands to say something that you are not saying with words? Have you tilted your head in a way that either affirms or denies someone else’s experience? Are you engaging or disengaging in conversation with your movements? Are you ‘awake’ in your gestures?
Facial expressions – There are some 43 muscles in the face and we are often using them in ways that we are not aware of. What are your eyes saying? Did your lip turn up or curl down when something was shared? What direction are you tilting your nose and chin? What are you communicating with your face as you respond to your environment? Are you ‘awake’ in your facial expressions?
Paralinguistics: tone of voice, volume, inflection, pitch – Have you ever experienced something that someone said as incongruent with the actual words they spoke? What is your tone of voice expressing when you ask about your lover’s day? How is your inflection when you question your child’s participation in a school activity? Are you speaking loudly about something that makes you nervous? Are you ‘awake’ in your voice?
Eye Gaze and Contact – So much is communicated through the eyes. Have you made eye contact with your family members during dinner? Are you scolding someone with your gaze? Are you paying attention with your eyes? Have you been looking at your feet throughout the entire meal? Or gazing up at the ceiling? Are you ‘awake’ in your eyes?
Somatic Patterns – We all have somatic patterns that are often unconscious, communicating something that we are unaware of. Are you twirling your hair while your husband talks about his work day, appearing bored or disinterested? Are you nodding as your child shares about his science test? Do you rub your eyes when sadness begins to creep in, trying to conceal an emotion? Are you ‘awake’ in your body patterns?
Appearance – How we appear communicates so much to others, often without our cognizant choice. Did you come to dinner in your pajamas? Have you changed into something comfortable or perhaps loosened your tie and taken off your shoes? Have you spent the entire dinner looking at your phone? Is the hat you are wearing covering your face? Are you showing through your appearance respect, presence, disapproval, disinterest? Are you ‘awake’ in your appearance?
”What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
What will improve as you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
As you imagine paying attention to and practicing your non-verbal communication skills, you might also imagine aspects of your life changing for the better. Among other things that will surprise, delight and inspire you, you will develop healthy, clear boundaries, enhance intimacy, deepen connections, communicate feelings and needs, and establish safety and trust. And who wouldn’t want these healthy upgrades improving our relationships and increasing our quality of life?!