A Definitive Guide To Decoding Non-Verbal Communication At The Workplace!

A Definitive Guide To Decoding Non-Verbal Communication At The Workplace!

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” — Peter F. Drucker

Communication skills play an essential role in any workplace, and almost all companies have training sessions for honing the same! However, that which receives negligible attention and is often overlooked is the importance of its silent cousin — Non-verbal communication!

How do you interpret a blank stare from a superior? Or the gestures of a shy employee? To understand these, it is important to understand the fundamentals of non-verbal communication and evaluate the cues associated with it.

Here’s a step-by-step process of ensuring you get what’s not being said!

Decode Non-Verbal Communication By Following These Steps!

1. Understand The Cues:

To put it straight, any form of communication that does not require usage of words is called non-verbal communication. This includes the following cues and components: Body language, appearance, the tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, space, touch, eye contact and also the time taken to respond.

According to Ravi S. Kudesia and Hillary Anger, there are four primary functions of nonverbal communication indicating Affiliation, Association, Passion, and Distribution.

  • Affiliation: This includes indicating and signaling closeness or distance from a specific group.
  • Association: The next stage is forming or associating with the group through a display of affection or dominance.
  • Passion: this involves expressing as well as interpretation of attitudes and intentions.
  • Distribution: This involves combining verbal communication with non-verbal cues in conversing.

According to Patti Wood, a body language expert, consultant, and speaker to Fortune 500 companies:

In any face-to-face interaction, one can exchange up to 10,000 non-verbal cues in less than a minute

This is because one cannot consciously control all communication and hence non-verbal cues tend to reveal a lot compared to a few words spoken at the same time.

Let’s take a look at some of the cues:

Cues Of Non-Verbal Communication

1. Body Language:

This includes posture and body movements. For example, a straight posture shows confidence. Same goes with body movements. For instance, sitting straight and leaning forward on the chair indicates interest and concentration in the discussion while adopting a relaxed leaning back posture may signify disinterest or arrogance.

Similarly, people disinterested in any discussion might lend subtle cues like turning away from the conversation while being seated indicating that they prefer to leave.

2. Appearance:

Although appearances are claimed to be deceptive, not all can be deemed to be so when it comes to workplace communication. Take the instance of a sales representative selling an upmarket fashion product. The attire and footwear worn by him/her would showcase the style statement and his knowledge of fashion required for selling the product.

Similarly, appearances play a vital role in interviews.

A study by Barrick, Shaffer, and Degrassi in The Journal of Applied Psychology, found that physical appearance had a profound impact on interviewer ratings as against impression management, verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

This may be because it is the first clue that an interviewer receives during an interview.

3. Paralinguistics:

Paralinguistics represent a part of vocal communication that is distinct from words. It includes factors like inflection, tone, pacing, gaps, and pauses, and intensity and volume. Different paralinguistics used when communicating to colleagues, and superiors exhibit various forms of strength and confidence of the employee.

4. Gestures:

These include actions performed involuntarily or habitually, say for instance drumming of fingers on the table, tilting the head to one side, placing palms on the cheeks, etc.

Certain gestures can convey a wrong meaning even if intended otherwise. For instance, an employee might place his head in his palms when thinking deeply, while this might be misunderstood as boredom.

Similarly, ‘steepling’ of the fingers meaning putting fingertips together, a sign often used by bosses indicates the ability to have full control of things.

Gestures often have a different meaning in different cultures and countries!

For instance, everything does usually seem OK with the OK sign made by joining the thumb and index finger with the other three fingers extended isn’t it?

You couldn’t be more wrong! This gesture can be interpreted differently in different countries. In Europe, it means that one is a big zero and useless, It indicates the number three in many western nations, while in Japan it indicates money. Similarly, the thumbs up gesture is seen as offensive in many parts of the middle east and South American countries.

5. Facial Expressions:

Actions such as furrowing, raising eyebrows, etc. tend to convey different meanings under different circumstances and accentuate the verbal communication.

6. Distance And Space:

The space maintained between co-workers when discussing something can be interpreted in various ways.  North Americans generally prefer about 18 inches of in-between space around themselves. Anything closer is considered to be too close and intimate especially in the workplace.

Also, distance maintained in meetings and conferences showcases status and power and authority. Say, for instance, taking a seat at the head of a conference table.

7. Time To Respond:

The time taken by an employee to respond non-verbally, through emails, text messages, etc., or arrive early for meetings would showcase his interest levels.

While in the case of interviews, the time to answer would depict his knowledge and confidence on the topic.

8. Touch:

This is a powerful cue associated with non-verbal communication. Examples include firm handshakes and a focused gaze that display confidence and firmness. A pat on the back, for instance, signifies appreciation.

9. Eye Contact:

Maintaining direct eye contact for at least two seconds when speaking is another vital sign of effective non-verbal communication signifying trustworthiness and confidence and merely glancing at another for less than a second known as eye dart conveys evasion and insecurity.

2. Understand Semantics Involved In Online Communication:

With the current trend of digital communication, the use of emails and online marketing has transformed the way workplaces communicate with employees as well as customers.

Further, with offshore outsourcing, employees work across different countries, cultures and time zones and hence predominantly rely on online communication. Therefore, it becomes imperative to understand the cues from such forms of communication as well.

Carter, in his article on “Type me how you feel: Quasi-nonverbal cues in Computer-Mediated Communication”, states that

The use of acronyms, emoticons, icons, emoticons, and formatting techniques like such as bold fonts, capitalizations and italics can be considered to be a form of quasi-nonverbal cues that help to display emotion.

However, there lies ambiguity in decoding such cues concerning online communication, as they tend to remain neutral even in positive feedback. This is because actual expressions are missing and hence all emails tend to be similar.

The proliferation of digital communication and social networking brings additional unique challenges in understanding non-verbal cues through these digital communications and social networking channels.

A study inside a Fortune 500 company found that this neutral aspect of digital communication cues helped reduce status differentials. Messages from superiors as well as subordinates were the same and employees preferred e-mailing superiors more than emailing subordinates.

Further, emails being task-oriented were preferred forms of communication to convey negative news as compared to direct face-to-face conversation.

Hence, organizations must adapt to face the new nonverbal semantic challenges associated with online communication.

3. Understand The Non-Verbal Display Of Status And Power:

Understand Authority

An important factor in the workplace is how non-verbal communication cue makes people perceive leadership, power, and position. Leaders often tend to display and manage their ability through their posture, body movements as well as tonal dynamics.

Another important aspect is that such non-verbal display not only reflects power but also helps to achieve power.

Carney, Cuddy, and Yap in the journal of Psychological Science stated that a mere holding of expansive body posture for just two minutes led to shifting a person’s neuroendocrine levels to a stage beneficial for leadership.

Open and expansive postures that humans and animals use for display of power led to higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels. Such high testosterone levels are common among high power posers.

Similarly, a lower contracted posture often associated with submissiveness decreased testosterone and increased cortisol levels signifying submissive stage not conducive for leadership.

Thus, a person can, by adopting such simple two-minute expansive poses, actually embody power and take a commanding position in a negotiation.

4. Deal With The Mismatch Between Verbal And Non-Verbal Communication:

Dr. Martin Remland, a non-verbal communication expert, said “Much of what a manager says may be contradicted by what he or she does.” Such mismatch occurs when a person verbally says something while his actions may not reflect the same.

For instance, while conveying a piece of good news, if the speaker tends to keep a flat face, then the audience would tend to doubt the credibility of the information.

When a person delivers a mismatched message, people generally tend to believe and resonate with the non-verbal part. This is because of the emotional quotient attached to many non-verbal signals.

Surveys reveal that 45% of employees are confused by their supervisor’s inconsistent cues and around 95% felt a lack of trust with discrepancies in verbal and non-verbal communication.

Studies reveal that non-verbal communication carries approximately 60% to 93% more pronounced impact than verbal communication especially in the case of messages conveying emotion.

Thus, How one says is more important than What one says!

5. Understanding Non-Verbal Communication’s Pivotal Role In Building Charisma!

Charisma bias, an often-overlooked aspect of non-verbal communication plays a vital role in voting for top positions like CEO.

People who have poise, stature, and grace are often preferred for top positions as such position recommends people who can carry themselves well and move with focus and grace. Hence, candidates for such senior positions should work on building their charisma by improving their non-verbal cues.

Here’s How You Can Use Non-Verbal Communication To Your Benefit!

1. Recognize Signs Of Trust, Emotion, And Deception:

Understanding non-verbal communication plays a vital role in specific business functions like negotiating and decision-making.

In negotiating any deal it is necessary to understand the emotions of one’s counterpart thoroughly. The interests and preferences of counterparts are often not visible publicly and are often explicitly hidden. They can be decoded only through non-verbal cues. Hence, a person skilled in understanding hidden cues like expressions, vocal tone, etc., can be an excellent negotiator.

Similarly, when it comes to the vital function of decision-making, it is essential to quickly and correctly manipulate deception by noticing non-verbal cues. These include including body movements like shrugs, a regular shift in posture indicating uneasiness or nervousness, swiping head frequently, etc.

Vocal cues like hesitation and errors during a speech, long time taken to respond, etc. also may throw light on possible deception.

According to Wood “As non-verbal cues are sent from the emotional part of the brain rather than the neocortex, they create more honest and revealing messages.”

Decoding them will help employees determine the motivation of others and analyze them with more depth and insight compared to relying on printed or spoken words and hence foresee possible deception if any.

2. Use Cues In Marketing And Sales:

Marketing and Sales also depend significantly on understanding non-verbal cues of customers. Quite often customers may say something while their facial or tonal behavior may reflect the opposite. Understanding such signals is vital for a successful marketer.

Similarly, salespersons have also to present themselves with a smile and positive attitude to win over customers.

3. Observe Attire:

Appearances, as discussed earlier, play an essential part in non-verbal communication. How does one take advantage of this to benefit the workplace?

Choosing to clothe consciously can have a positive effect on the workplace. Uniforms help promote egalitarianism. In many countries like Japan, middle managers tend to wear the same uniform as that of shop floor workers. Wearing company uniforms help to enhance employee identification with the company and promote the company brand.  

Apart from uniforms, general proper corporate attire should be followed like:

  • Wearing a suit or jacket to important corporate meetings.
  • Flashy accessories, strong perfumes, etc., are a strict No!
  • Take steps to control sweat and maintain good oral hygiene.

Peluchette and Karl, in their article ‘Dressing To Impress’ in the Journal of Business and Psychology state that proper attire helps achieve influence and work-related benefits like promotions.

4. Use Non-Verbal Cues To Find Top Performers:

Understanding non-verbal communication is vital in evaluating job respondents and choosing the right ones. A proper self-presentation through vocal tones, smile, attire, body movements from a job seeker can elicit positive feelings in an interviewer like trust and credibility.

Individuals with such positive presentation and behavior also stand a higher chance to be personally successful that could be crucial for the benefit of the organization.

Non-Verbal Communication

5. Initiate Interactions:

According to Wood:

To take advantage of non-verbal communication one must be the first to make eye contact, or offer a handshake, have an idea and go into the room and make a call. “One can afford to go last only when they are in the C-suite and ready to retire.”   

6. Evaluate Authoritative Posture And Presence:

Take up space to convey your message with conviction and authority. This can be in the form of utilizing the hand rest on chairs, standing in an authoritative posture with the feet a little apart.

According to Wood, a typical female leg stance is 4 to 6 inches apart while a male leg power stance begins with feet more than 8 inches apart.

In addition to the above, it is advisable to pay importance to use proper tone, maintaining eye-contact and pay full attention when conversing in-order to derive benefit in the workplace.

Non-verbal communications rely more on emotions, and workplace environments often lack research-driven advice for the same. Hence, it becomes difficult for employers to understand and decode these forms of communication.

Taking an effort to understand the potential of non-verbal behaviors in the workplace can significantly help an employer to handle situations better as ultimately it is what lies beyond words that counts!


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