Understanding Nonverbal Communication With Examples of Eight Nonverbal Forms

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 8, 2022 | Published June 21, 2021

Updated July 8, 2022

Published June 21, 2021

Forms of communication are all around us and consist of sending and receiving messages. When you can learn how to harness specific types of communication effectively, such as nonverbal, you can become a master communicator. In this article, we discuss the definition of nonverbal communication and why it's crucial for effective communication. We also look at the eight types of nonverbal communication and how you can begin to improve and develop your skills.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication refers to the messages you transmit through all other means than the words you use. The way you send a message nonverbally includes your body language, such as how you stand, the expression on your face, and your posture. It also includes eye contact, tone of voice, and how close you stand to someone.

Related: Everything You Need To Know About the Communication Process

Why is nonverbal communication important?

Experts agree that anywhere from 70-93% of all communication happens nonverbally. Because the vast majority of how you communicate happens from how you say it, not what you say, it's critical to understand the importance of nonverbal cues and body language if you want to be an expert communicator.

Learning and developing your nonverbal communication is essential, whether you are the speaker or the listener. When you know to match your nonverbal cues to the words you say, your message becomes more precise and effective at reaching and impacting your listener. And learning to pick up on nonverbal communication cues can help you understand what someone is saying and detect inconsistencies in their message.

Related: The Importance of Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

Types of nonverbal communication

There are eight different kinds of nonverbal communication, which encompass body language and other aspects. Below, we discuss the eight aspects in-depth:

Body movements and gestures

Body movements and gestures are a type of nonverbal body language that conveys emotion and context to the words you say. Body movements and gestures may be conscious or involuntary. An example of conscious body language would be nodding your head as you agree with something you hear or gesturing with your hands to accentuate what you're saying in excitement. An involuntary gesture would be wringing your hands without realizing it when you're nervous or clearing your throat during an uncomfortable conversation.

Part of being an effective communicator is making sure that your body movements and gestures agree with and add to what you are verbally saying. An example of distracting and misaligned body movements would be shaking your head when you're saying yes. Becoming aware of the gestures you make and the body movements you use is essential in a working environment to provide a clear message in integrity with the words you speak.

Here are several examples of body movements and gestures:

  • Leaning into a conversation or leaning away

  • Shaking or nodding your head

  • Counting on your fingers

  • Using your hands to show size or space

Related: How To Use Interview Body Language To Project Confidence

Posture

Posture is a type of nonverbal communication expressed through how you hold your body. Your posture can indicate your emotional state, how receptive you are to the information being shared, and even how you feel about the person you're communicating with. Postural cues are how straight your back is, whether seated or standing. It also includes if your head is hanging down, looking straight ahead or tilted upward.

For example, if you're speaking to someone and your back is straight, your shoulders are back, and your head looks forward, you present yourself with authority and confidence. In contrast, you show the opposite attitude if you're hunched over and with your head down.

What you do with your arms and legs also contributes to your posture and the message it sends. Having your arms and legs crossed while seated can give the impression of disinterest or aggression, even if the particular posture is physically comfortable to you. Open posture is considered to have your arms at your side and your legs uncrossed or standing straight on both feet. A relaxed posture gives others the impression of being receptive, tolerant, and approachable.

Touch

During moments of communication, you may use touch to express feelings and emotions further or physically connect with someone. Moments of touch can accentuate your message or provide a deeper connection. For example, a hug is a common nonverbal form of communication that implies friendship, love, comfort or greeting. Patting someone on the back can congratulate them on a job well done. It's vital within a workplace setting to understand what touch is appropriate within the company culture and for each person you communicate with.

It's also important to understand the cultural differences when using touch as a form of nonverbal communication. For example, in many European countries, it's common to greet people by kissing them on the cheek. In Central America, physical touch is a common expression of language in various types of relationships. In contrast, North Americans are much more reluctant to express language through physical touch. However, one common form of touch is a handshake during a greeting or departure. A handshake can provide valuable information about the individual. From how firmly they grip your hand to how forcefully they pump the handshake up and down, people communicate their personality or characteristics through these actions.

Related: Professionalism in the Workplace

Facial expressions

Facial expressions can give away your emotions and receptivity to a message. Your face can say so much with a smile or a raise of your eyebrow. Your facial expressions are a powerful nonverbal type of communication, whether speaking or listening. The expression you make can change the meaning of the words you're saying. For example, stating a fact while rolling your eyes can imply sarcasm or frustration. Being aware of the facial expressions of others during a conversation can provide insight into how they feel about what you're saying. And in a professional setting, it's critical to be aware of the expressions you make to project a positive impression.

Eye contact

Maintaining eye contact when communicating with someone is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. Making eye contact with someone speaking shows your interest or concern in what they're saying. It's a personal way of connecting with another person on an intimate level. If the person you're speaking to keeps looking away or avoiding eye contact, they may be feeling uncomfortable, unsure, or apathetic. Similarly, if a person is speaking and won't make eye contact, it's often a sign that they are not telling the truth. To create and maintain strong, effective communication, make and keep eye contact throughout your conversation.

Related: Active Listening Skills: A Key To Effective Communication In The Workplace

Vocal tone and inflection

Vocal tone and inflection is a group of characteristics known as vocalics or paralanguage. This type of nonverbal communication has everything to do with how you say the words, not the actual words themselves. Vocalics includes your tone of voice, the words you emphasize, the volume of your voice, and the pitch. Each of these areas adds or takes away from the message you are trying to communicate.

For example, you may speak quietly with minimal inflection and pitch changes as you're in a room full of people that make you feel uncomfortable. In contrast, if you enjoy public speaking, you will project your voice, add various pitch changes and emphasize specific words to show confidence in your message.

Location and proximity

How close you stand to another person is a form of nonverbal communication. The proximity to an individual when speaking with them can predict the closeness of your relationship. In Canada, an average person typically has a personal space of around 15-45 centimetres. This space, or personal bubble, is our intimate physical environment, usually reserved only for close friends, family, and loved ones. When someone you don't know comes into your personal space, it can provide a negative and uncomfortable experience of communication. It's important to understand and respect an individual's personal space to create a comfortable environment conducive to positive and effective communication.

Physiological changes

Physiological changes are typically unconscious and aspects you cannot control. Examples of these changes would include sweating, tearing up, blushing, and nervous shaking. Often physiological changes can be observed by others, so they are included as a nonverbal type of communication. Often the triggers of physiological changes are rooted in fear, anxiety, or discomfort. Depending on the situation that creates these physiological changes, you can become aware of the triggers and slowly create new habits that minimize the changes over time.

Related: What Are the Various Benefits of Effective Communication?

How to improve your nonverbal communication skills

Once you become aware of all the types of nonverbal communication you use daily, it becomes easier to improve and develop your nonverbal skills. Here are several ways you can work to improve:

Understand your personal expression of feelings in your nonverbal communication

The first step to improving your nonverbal skills is becoming aware of how you personally express yourself through nonverbal forms. Begin to observe how you stand, what you do with your hands, what facial expressions you make, and your tone of voice in various situations. Once you understand your habits, you can begin to improve specific areas.

Related: The 7 Cs of Communication (And Tips for Improving Them)

Be intentional about your nonverbal communication

Once you are aware of what you usually do nonverbally, begin to be intentional with your movements and expressions. Practice standing with an open posture instead of comfortably crossing your arms or legs. When listening to someone, purposely make eye contact and nod your head to signify your understanding.

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