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Knowledge Update

“Words” in Silence: Non-verbal Communication

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As a product of the late 1970s and someone who grew up with the music of the 1980s, it is no wonder that I can seem to relate every topic that I write about to music. Even today’s topic on non-verbal communication and its importance in our ineractions with others starts with reference to a classic song. An old 1982 song by F.R. David starts with “Words, don’t come easy, to me”. I can most certainly relate to this. Sure, the song refers to words of love and how the singer struggles to express the emotion but the underlying sentiment can be extrapolated to fit in all areas of life.

I think that this is true for most of us. Words, in whichever language we choose to express ourselves, don’t come easily to most of us. This is most likely because our words carry significance. They carry weight and have immense impact. Words are important. This is an inescapable fact. Words let people express themselves. Words let others know what someone is feeling and what they are thinking. Words can sustain, uplift, improve, hurt or demotivate. Words are powerful tools. We, as humans, know this. We use our words to get what we want. We use our words to persuade. We use our words to scold. We use our words for a plethora of reasons. Yet, sometimes, words fail. Why is this? Words sometimes fail because the verbal language we are speaking does not match the non-verbal language we are displaying. We say something where the words are innocuous but people take offence. We then become confused how some seemly innocent verbal utterance from us could cause harm or discomfort.

An old cliché goes that “it is not WHAT you say but the WAY you say it”. A cliché is a cliché for a reason. It is an oft repeated phrase because at its core there is some truth, even if because of overuse it appears to lack originality and become trite. In this case it still seems to hold water. Our tone of voice can get us into trouble, even when we do not mean offence. Tone forms part of a list of non-verbal communication tools that everyone possesses. From small children who screw up their faces to signal that they will start to cry if they are not entertained immediately to silent looks of disapproval we send and receive in the workplace, we all use our arsenal of non-verbal communication tools. This is both a conscious and an unconscious process.

There is an argument to be made for the point that our nonverbal communication can often be more powerful and speak louder than our verbal communication. Think about a situation where you are sitting alone in a crowded room where you don’t know anyone. These days our first inclination will be to take out our phones and check email or whatever social media platform we are registered on. No-one will approach you. Why is this? No-one will approach you because you have closed yourself off, metaphorically, without having to explicitly state “don’t come near me”. Your phone becomes your focus and therefore people do not feel comfortable approaching you. You have created your comfort zone but other people have become uncomfortable. You will leave that room not having made a single contact and will most likely wonder why. Your body language spoke volumes without you having to utter a single syllable. Your body language might not reflect the true you but that is the message that was being sent at the time. For this reason, we need to be very careful of what our non-verbal communication says about us.

Non-verbal communication can be intentionally used in commanding ways and in this way can be a true asset to everyone. Non-verbal communication can become another method of expression and a wonderful tool in our communication arsenal. For this to be true we need to be very careful about what our non-verbal communication says about us.  We need to be intentional and plan what our non-verbal communication conveys. This is true for both social and professional spaces. For the purposes of this short article, let us look at a five items of non-verbal communication and their impact in the workplace.

  • First up is an issue of non-verbal communication that can be tricky for interpersonal reasons. Self-presentation, specifically related to grooming and clothes is something that most people under then need for. There are instances though where managers have to intervene. Why is this? It is simply because as we all know, our first impression is not made with our voices. Our first impression is made with our appearance. Whether this is politically correct or not can be argued for 100 pages but the sad fact is that this is the way the world currently works. In a workplace you must be well-groomed, by this it is meant that you must be smartly and appropriately dressed for your workplace, according to the norms and culture. What are some of the things you need to keep in mind as far as clothing and appearance are concerned in your cultural environment?
  • Next, something simple that is so easy to get wrong is eye contact. Yes, even for this there are ‘guidelines’. Eye contact should be appropriate, not constant. If eye contact is constant you risk people thinking you are staring and therefore becoming upset. A good and simple rule to follow in the workplace is to always look someone in the eyes (please adjust for culturally appropriate interactions) but to look away once and a while. For example, you can look away when you are nodding. Don’t do things like look at your watch or your phone as people will think this means you are not interested in what they are saying. Also, do not tighten your eye muscles as this makes you look like you are frowning.
  • Thirdly, facial expressions are usually the item that lets people inadvertently know what your mood is. In the workplace you should strive to have a positive and open expression. Your face will be looked at most while people are talking with you. In fact, this is the feature that most people will look at before they even approach you for help or advice. You want to make sure that you have an open and friendly expression on your face. You do not have to be smiling widely 24/7, but you do have to have a relaxed and pleasant look on your face. You do not want to frown or push your eyebrows together, or roll your eyes, even when you think no-one is watching you.
  • Body language and positioning, mainly referring to posture is where you want to communicate your openness and get people to work with you. Have an open posture by keeping arms out and not crossed, standing or sitting up straight, turning your body towards the person who is talking. All these items will let people know that they can approach you.
  • Finally, the article returns to the issue of tone of voice. Tones to try to emulate are soothing, understanding, sometimes to gain attention – woman are often taught to speak softly and have a ‘nice to listen to’ voice. Think about when we tell bedtime stories to children or sing them to sleep. This tone of voice is very appropriate for home but for the workplace you might need to make it a bit stronger. Men might want to reign in their ‘instinctive dominant’ tones.

In the end, these are just guidelines of parts of communication that you might like to take note of. Remember though, we don’t need words to communicate and therefore we need to ensure that our non-verbal signals are communicating the our intended message.