Non-Verbal Communication Skills

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We all communicate nonverbally. The image that we project from our nonverbal communication affects the way that our spoken communication is received. While interpreting body language is important, it is equally important to understand what your nonverbal communication is telling others. It takes more than words to persuade others.

Body Language

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Body language is a form of non-verbal communication involving the use of stylized gestures, postures, and physiologic signs that act as cues to other people. Humans unconsciously send and receive non-verbal signals through body language all the time.

One study at UCLA found that up to 93 percent of American communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent by voice quality, and 55 percent by non-verbal communication. Your body language must match the words you use. If a conflict arises between your words and your body language, your body language governs.

Below are examples of positive and negative body language in American culture.

Positive Body LanguageNegative Body Language
Direct eye contactNo eye contact
Warm, open smileTight facial features; no smile
Fully facingAngled away
Tilting the headFidgeting
Leaning  over sitting forwardSlouching
Upright, relaxed postureHunched shoulders
Feet planted firmly on the groundBody sagging
Firm handshakeWeak handshake

Just as with spoken language, each country in the world has its own forms of acceptable and unacceptable body language based on local cultural norms.

The Signals You Send to Others

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Signals are movements used to communicate needs, desires, and feelings to others. They are a form of expressive communication. More than 75% of the signals you send to others are non-verbal.

People who are strong, culturally aware communicators display sensitivity to the power of the emotions and thoughts communicated non-verbally through signals.

Any nonverbal signals you send to others should match your words. Otherwise, people will tend to pay less attention to what you said, and focus instead on your nonverbal signals.

Eye Contact

  • For Americans, direct eye contact  indicates that a person is confident and favorable
  • Africans typically look down when they are listening, and look up when they are speaking
  • In China, a lack of eye contact may indicate a show of respect
  • For a Navajo Indian, a lack of eye contact may mean avoiding a loss of soul, or avoiding a theft.


  • Slouching is considered rude in northern Europe
  • Bowing shows respect in Asia
  • Sitting with one’s legs crossed is offensive in Turkey and Ghana.


A gesture is a motion of the limbs or body made to express or help express a thought or to emphasize speech.  Without gestures, our speech would not be very exciting or expressive. However just as with language, the social acceptability of gestures varies greatly according to cultural norms. 

In the U. S., we point with our index finger. In Germany, the little finger is used, and Japanese point with the entire hand.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

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In workplace communication, it is important that your voice sounds upbeat, warm, under control, and clear. This is especially true when you are interacting with someone from a different culture, or who is speaking with you in a different language. Below are some tips to help you begin the process.

  1. Breathe from your diaphragm
  2. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated; avoid caffeine because of its diuretic effects
  3. Posture affects breathing, and also tone of voice, so be sure to stand up straight
  4. To warm up the tone of your voice, smile
  5. If you have a voice that is particularly high or low, exercise its by practicing speaking on a sliding scale. You can also sing to expand the range of your voice
  6. Record your voice and listen to the playback
  7. Deeper voices are more credible than higher pitched voices. Try speaking in a slightly lower octave. It will take some practice, but with a payoff, just as radio personalities have learned
  8. Enlist a colleague or family member to get feedback about the tone of your voice.

Module Six: Case Study

Karen spoke with one of her employees, Elizabeth, about a new project that she needed her to undertake.

Karen noticed something and said, “Elizabeth, even though you’ve only said positive things during our meeting, I noticed that you slouched your shoulders and sighed in a heavy way. Is there anything you want to tell me?”

Elizabeth said, “I am excited about this project. I just know that it will be difficult to make sure I meet this project’s deadlines as well as other deadlines that I have coming up.”

Karen said, “I’m glad you said something. Here let’s see if there are any deadlines we can extend.” Karen added, “While your body language did a lot of the speaking for you, it’s better to say what’s on your mind, so there’s no confusion.”

Elizabeth agreed to be more direct in the future, and they planned their next meeting.