There are numerous ways in which those around us communicate subtle and sometimes not-so subtle, messages. These codes and messages give us information only about the here and now – it is immediate information but it is by its very nature transient. It cannot tell us about how the person in front of us were feeling ten minutes ago, at the meeting last week and how they felt last month at the sales conference.
Non-Verbal Communication (NVC) is therefore limited to face-to-face communication or when the communicator is present by looking closely at their behaviour.
The first part of this process is to gain information about the speaker and their identity, emotional state, attitude and social position. The second aspect of NVC is looking at the evidence and working out how the interaction will develop – this determines how the meeting will go and who will attempt to be dominant by using certain NVC tools; gestures, posture, tone of voice, eye contact are all used for this purpose – by thinking about your strategy you can use these to good effect or similarly identify and understand when they are being used on you!!
Written material can have a similar effect; when was the last time you received a printed message or text that felt “cold”, had a certain “tone of voice” in the way it was written? Photographs convey a number of messages conveying depression, joy or wonder. What makes NVC more powerful is that is links straight into our emotions – we fully recognise the message and look for NVC to confirm that message. There may be times when the verbal message is at odds with how we read the NVC component – wherever there is a miss-match we really need to be on our guard and try to unearth what the real message actually is.
Broadly there are ten separate codes of NVC
Whom we touch and where we touch send very clear signals about relationships and “closeness”. Strong, positive and open working relationships are punctuated by appropriate physical touching as support and affirmation tools. Those trading upon their social standing or position within the workplace use physical contact to re-enforce their superiority in a subtle and measured way. Some autocratic workplaces or organisations with strong bureaucratic systems encourage such an approach and subordinates in these workplaces can become reliant upon such controlling behaviours as a support mechanism.
How closely we approach someone sends clear messages about co-operation and collaboration. Watch the room – people working well together show close physical proximity – a good indicator of meeting “politics” that you would be foolish to ignore. Within three feet is “intimate” territory; up to about eight feet is “personal”; over eight feet is “semi- public”; over eight feet is “neutral”. Bear in mind different cultures see this very differently.
Angling the body sends subtle clues; facing someone can indicate either intimacy or aggression. Being at 90 degrees to another indicates a co-operative stance.
Sends strong clues about personality, social status and especially conformity. Loud ties on the backdrop of a rather plain suit and a white shirt may indicate a more confrontational and less conformist approach. Power dressing sends only one type of message! A bold image in a sales professional is seldom forgotten.
Used strongly in a turn-taking speaking scenario. The meeting where we all agree and do not want to be seen as the one dissenting voice in the room! The person rapidly nodding is desperate to speak!
This includes eyebrow position, eye shape, mouth shape and nostril size. Those of us who have spent just too much time in meetings can see the value of this as unless the people at meetings are all expert Poker players, emotions do get written all over our faces. Elation, happiness, disappointment, disapproval, just plain boredom, disengagement and apathy.
The hands and arms are the main players here but looking for the movement of the head and feet are also important. Gestures link closely with verbal information; someone not on your message sits with their arms folded, will not supply eye contact and have a very “distracted” image. Anger looks well, just like anger. And so it goes. Try dropping in a verbal “bomb” into a meeting and watch the body language change! As a general rule of thumb NVC should correlate with what is actually being said – if there is a difference work to establish where the truth lies and accept nothing until you do.
The way in which we sit and stand tell much about what we are thinking. They show interpersonal attitudes; friendliness, hostility, superiority or inferiority can all be indicated by posture. Posture can also indicate emotional state, the degree to which tension is present and the degree to which relaxation is also present. Importantly posture tells us more about true feelings than facial expression which can be controlled to a far greater degree. Someone looking calm and with a fixed expression that is designed to give nothing away is always undermined by a fidgeting or even mildly squirming posture.
Eye movement and eye contact
When, how often and for how long we meet other people’s eyes is a very important method of conveying important messages about relationships, especially around dominance, submission or affiliation. Staring someone out is all about simple power and control. Generally making eye contact early in a verbal statement indicates a desire to dominate the listener and to make them listen; making eye contact towards the end or after a verbal statement indicates a more open and supportive relationship or a desire to receive some feedback from the listener.
Non Verbal aspects of speech
How does the pitch and stress in the language in the message come over? “Are you going to the Meeting?” can be put in a number of ways some more direct and threatening than others, some playful or engaging than others. What does the tone, volume and speed of the verbal message tell you? Here there are subtle, sometimes very clear messages about the emotive state of the sender, their perceptions and how they view the receiver of the message.
OR you could just manage by written communication, never meeting anyone, never showing and NVC and just hope for the best!