Effective Communication -Nonverbal Communication

The use of facial expressions, eye contact and posture in communication.

CPD Assessments
Effective Communication - Nonverbal Communication

Effective Communication - Nonverbal Communication

Case Study

Umlazi Career Development Centre is growing and needs a new staff member to manage a new project. Zandile Duma, who manages the organisation, remembered a former colleague Xolani Hlongwane with whom she had worked closely. Zandile knew that Xolani had a great work ethic and was dedicated to serving students and their development. She refers him to the CEO. 

When Xolani showed up for the interview, the panel immediately became shocked and unsettled. Zandile had mentioned to Xolani that Umlazi Career Development Centre was traditional and conservative where professional attire was the norm. Zandile also informed him that he would be working with youth, stakeholders and parents. Xolani shows up for the interview wearing a suit and tie but also a series of facial piercings which include a nose ring, eyebrow ring and multiple earrings.

Zandile feared that the CEO might feel that Xolani wasted their time by coming through for the interview when he clearly had little respect for the norms of the organisation. Xolani’s appearance suggested that he had little regard for what Zandile had mentioned, thereby indicating a lack of respect to the panel members.

The case study above indicates the impact of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication means the use of facial expressions, eye contact and posture. Much of what a person is feeling is relayed through body language or their eyes. However, remember that nonverbal communication can be different according to place, culture and individual differences. There is no specific interpretation and the career development practitioner should therefore be open to interpretations. Body language is often taken for granted as it is seen as an involuntary or a semi-conscious act. Body language however is an invaluable tool as there are several cues which can indicate what a client is feeling or thinking. We saw from the case study that Xolani’s physical appearance can be a form of nonverbal communication. His tone, facial expressions and mannerisms would also fall under nonverbal communication.

Interpersonal communication also refers to the unspoken messages that are being relayed through nonverbal behaviours.

Nonverbal communication helps practitioners to:

  • Reinforce what is being said in words, for example where smiling and nodding show agreement.
  • Convey information about their emotional state, e.g. sad, happy or confused.
  • Provide feedback to the other person. A frown might suggest disagreement or confusion.
  • Provide cues on when to initiate or end an interaction.

It should be noted that nonverbal communication is not a language with a fixed meaning or norms and it could be interpreted differently by different people. It is created, influenced and maintained by the context in which it occurs. It includes both the place and the people concerned, as well as the culture, and it can be both conscious or unconscious. 

Types of Nonverbal Communication

There are many different types of nonverbal communication styles. They include:

  • Body language or movements and physical appearance:

The way you carry yourself communicates information to the world. This type of nonverbal communication includes your posture, stance and the subtle movements you make. Think about how you would view someone who walks slowly with their head bowed? The way that someone chooses to dress and adorn themselves also sends a powerful message to those watching.

  • Posture:

Your posture often communicates your level of confidence. Someone who has a bold walk with a head held high suggests high confidence levels as opposed to someone who walks with shoulders slumped.

  • Eye contact:

Eye contact is a very 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 assessing the other person’s interest and response.

Tone of speech, pitch, elevation and speed are known as paralanguage (cues inside actually spoken words). When you speak, other people 'read' your voice in addition to listening to your words. Listeners pay attention to your timing and pace, how loud you speak and sounds that convey understanding. Your tone of voice can indicate sarcasm, anger, affection or confidence.

  • Closeness or personal space:

We all have a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the culture, the situation and the closeness of the relationship. In South Africa, people tend to stand closer to those they talk to. In some countries this could be offensive. You can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages, including signals of intimacy and affection, aggression or dominance.

  • Facial expressions:

The human face is extremely expressive, able to convey countless emotions without saying a word. Unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust are the same across cultures. Often there are also micro-expressions that flash in response to emotions or feelings. 

  • Gestures:

When you wave or point, or use your hands when arguing or speaking animatedly, you are expressing yourself with gestures. However, the meaning of some gestures can be very different across cultures. Gestures do not have the same universal meanings and can be misinterpreted. 

  • Physiological changes:

Physiological reactions are linked with anxiety and discomfort. Sweating, blushing (or flushing), and teary eyes are all dead giveaways that the speaker is emotionally impacted by the nature of the conversation.

People sometimes have less control over their nonverbal messages and this might be unconscious.

Nonverbal communication is more emotional in nature and therefore more inborn. It is therefore very easy to offend someone though it might not be conscious or deliberate. 

How to improve nonverbal communication

Practitioners need to be very aware when addressing clients, as nonverbal communication is rapid and the practitioner could miss an expression if they are not watching closely. In addition to being fully present with someone, you can improve your nonverbal skills by learning to manage stress and developing your emotional awareness.

Learn to manage stress in the moment
Stress minimises a person’s ability to communicate effectively. When stressed, one could misread other people or send confusing or off-putting nonverbal signals. 

It is therefore necessary to take a time out. Take a moment to calm down before going back into the conversation. 
Tips to calm yourself and manage stress in the moment:
  • By viewing a photo of your favourite place to visit.
  • Smelling a favourite scent.
  • Listening to a certain piece of music.
  • Squeezing a stress ball, as this can relax you and refocus your thoughts. 
  • Some people find prayer very soothing. An internal chant or affirmation can also help greatly.
  • Even just noticing you are in a state of stress can allow you to move to a position of observing your stress rather than reacting to it. 
Develop your emotional awareness
In order to send accurate nonverbal cues, you need to be aware of your emotions and how they influence you. You also need to be able to recognise the emotions of others and the true feelings behind the cues they are sending. Being emotionally aware is crucial for a practitioner.
Being emotionally aware enables you to:
  • Accurately read other people, including the emotions they are feeling and the unspoken messages they are sending.
  • Create trust in relationships by sending nonverbal signals that match up with your words.
  • Respond in ways that show others that you understand and care.
By developing your emotional awareness and connecting with all ranges of emotions, you will gain greater awareness and control over how you think and act. 

Here are a few tips on how to become more emotionally aware:

  • Practice observing how you feel
Set a reminder for various points during the day. When the reminder goes off, take a few deep breaths and notice how you are feeling emotionally. Pay attention to where that emotion is showing up as a physical feeling in your body and what the sensation feels like. The more you can practice this, the more in tune you become with yourself.

  • Pay attention to how you behave
Notice how you act when you are experiencing certain emotions and how that affects your responses. If your reaction is causing others to withdraw or keep away, it might be worthwhile to correct the way you react to situations.

  • Take responsibility for your feelings and behaviour
Your emotions and behaviour come from you, not anyone else. Therefore, you are the one who is responsible for them. If you lose your temper, you alone are responsible for the repercussions, so do not pin blame on others. Practice being emotionally responsible, and using your triggers and emotions as a starting point for curiosity and self-reflection.

  • Practice responding, rather than reacting
When we react, it is an unconscious process which we experience as certain triggers create an emotional response in us, such as anger or annoyance.

Responding is a conscious or controlled process that involves noticing how you feel, then deciding how you want to behave (for example, if feeling irritated, explain to the person how you feel and why this is not a good time to be disturbing you. This would be better than snapping outright). Creating some space between the stimulus and response can be a supportive mindfulness practice for a career practitioner. 

  • Practice empathising with yourself and others
Empathy is about understanding why someone feels or behaves in a certain way and being able to communicate that understanding to them. Extend empathy to yourself and ask yourself why you feel the way you do. Resolving your unpleasant feeling will lead to greater understanding of self and others. Be kind to yourself.
Communication skills are a lifetime practice and it is possible to keep improving. Even when you feel like you have mastered these steps, remember to keep practicing and you will reap the benefits of being a good communicator for the rest of your life.

Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 2.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ZA) 

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Kindly attribute as follows:

Beukes, C. J., Mahadave, K., & Kanhai, K. (2022). Professional Development Portfolio for Career Development Practitioners (1st ed.)CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ZA, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/za/ 



Karuna Mahadave

Christopher John Beukes

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