Lessons On Leadership

Understanding Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

By Joan Lowery April 28, 2016

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While nonverbal communication isn’t magic, it can seem like magic to the untrained eye and ear. It’s a sophisticated language and must be understood to accurately assess the full meaning of what others are communicating. It includes both visual and vocal expression, and these channels provide a rich array of information that may confirm, contradict or put into question the words someone uses.

When the visual and vocal dimensions are in agreement with the content, we say that a message is seamless and clear. However, when nonverbal communication is at odds with the words being used, we need to explore the full meaning behind the message.

You only have to watch television news, listen to radio talk shows or eavesdrop on conversations to validate the truth of the expression, “It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” Let’s explore the visual and vocal dimensions of nonverbal communication.

The visual dimension This includes body language—eye contact, gestures, posture, facial expression (especially whether one smiles, frowns, purses lips, etc.); the energy or force with which one moves or gestures; and how a person sits or stands when conversing or presenting.

It also includes how near or far you position yourself in relation to others, as well as the use of touch. In different cultures the use of space, touch, smiling and gesturing may be interpreted very differently than in your culture. So, it’s wise when communicating cross culturally to be aware of positive and negative nonverbal practices that are specific to the person or group you are engaging.

The vocal dimension This is the often-ignored stepchild of nonverbal communication. It includes pitch, rate, volume, rhythm, articulation, pausing, word emphasis and those pesky, habitual fillers such as “like,” “so,” “OK,” “well, uh” and “um.” I have been informally surveying people to learn whether they actually hear themselves as they speak. The result is a resounding no. Most people, unless trained as speakers, actors, singers or newscasters, typically have no idea what they sound like until they are recorded. Yet, how you say something has a tremendous impact on how your meaning will be understood.

For example, if you say, “Product X is a breakthrough product,” but you deliver the words in a monotone, listeners won’t believe you. If you pepper your sentences with “uh,” um,” “so” or other fillers, your message will be diminished, and your fillers may distract listeners to the point where they start counting your fillers, versus hearing what you said.

Nonverbal communication is two-way We want to be skilled at both reading others’ nonverbal language as well as being intentional about what we are communicating. The one often impacts the other. The good news is that you can make the decision to notice how you and others communicate verbally, visually and vocally. Practice new vocal and visual behaviors and enjoy how that impacts your results.

Management guru Peter Drucker’s statement sums it up: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.”

Joan Lowery, M.Ed., SCF Leadership Academy faculty member, has been designing and delivering training and coaching programs around the globe for more than 20 years. For more information about the SCF Leadership Academy, contact Lee Kotwicki at (941) 363-7218 or [email protected]

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