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Non-Verbal Communication

There’s a popular saying,’Ninety percent of communication is non-verbal.” And most times I’ve heard it repeated, the focus quickly shifts back to the verbal portion. Why would we focus on only ten percent if we really want to succeed?

Snap your fingers. Notice how you did it. Notice where your hand was, how much muscular effort you used, how loud it was. Let that go. We’ll come back to it in a bit.

Outside of spoken and written word, there is a wealth of information constantly being exchanged in any social situation. We do “read” people and situations, and we can learn to be skillful communicators on the non-verbal level.

The relative location of others is one of the things that is constantly perceived and evaluated. We notice how “close” we are to others. Physical distance corresponds to emotional distance. We all evaluate this continually, mostly sub-consciously.

Likewise, clothing, posture, gesture and facial expression are in our awareness- even when we don’t seem to notice or can’t even see it. Imagine a woman walking on high heels. Can you hear her steps? Is this not part of her presentation? The rustle of clothing, the creak of a chair or the floor when weight is shifted, the scratching of pen on paper; these are clues to which we all respond, often sub-consciously.

Now picture a speaker who draws you in, who makes you feel warm and safe, and then challenges and inspires you. If when you analyze those images, you’ll find they contain a series of postures, and a vocabulary of gestures. By studying that gestural vocabulary and exploring our postures you can become more confident, more skilled and more present. You will be seen as safe and engaging. Having attended to the non-verbal interaction, your words will be received by welcoming ears.

Applying words to the movements we have taken for granted can be challenging! However, before we can do what we want, we must know what we are already doing. A neutral description will allow a clear headed evaluation.

Let’s talk vocabulary. I’ll start at arm and hand gestures. Open arms, arms akimbo, well armed, handy, tight fisted, grasping, you can see that we already have some strong vocabulary! It’s pretty random though, so let’s create some organization. Here’s some ways to describe our gestures: Near or medium or far, opening or enclosing, direct or indirect, fast or slow, high or low, small or large, strong or gentle.

Now please snap your fingers again. Where did you place you hand to start? Probably in the medium range, a foot or so from your torso. Move it in to an inch from your chest and snap, and then to arms length and snap again. Can you feel that each has a different implication? Find an angry, imperious way. Then find a perky, up beat way. You can learn to notice what you are doing, sense whether it fits with your emotions and intentions, and then make adjustments.

A near gesture can convey self referencing as in a proud thumb pointed to the center of the chest. Close your fist and the gesture is intensified, signaling a fiercer intent. An open hand patting or stroking your belly can show satisfaction after a good meal. Change the soft hand to a grip and we have someone showing concern or frustration with their weight! We all perceive these gestures, but do we realize what we are showing to others?

Medium range gestures can show strength. The potential to move in any direction creates a sense of powerful options. The balancing quality is that it can seem uncommitted or just unclear. Skillful use of medium range can inspire confidence while maintaining intimacy.

Using far range is grand, dramatic, sweeping, encompassing and can be a tool for reaching large groups. Conversely, it can be overdone, diffuse, and create a barrier to intimacy. Interestingly, it can be surprisingly vulnerable since it often does not defend the center.

Picture someone standing and talking, speaking passionately. How is the emotion shown? Does our speaker pound a fist or slash the air to emphasize a point? Leaning forward with eyes wide, lifting the chest and shoulders and appearing to grow larger? Does this energy engage the listener, or does it drive them back? The more powerful the gesture, they more room it takes up.

Position matters. How far away is someone? and what direction are they facing? are probably the first two things we assess. We say “a face to face confrontation”, or, “He spoke somewhat obliquely”. These indicate our awareness of direction as a factor in communication. Distance, or spacing, varies culturally. New Yorkers are much more used to close quarters than North Dakotans, and Russians generally expect two persons in a conversation to stand much closer than do Americans.

How does this translate in different situations? At the podium, a speaker is very square to the audience, directly facing them. The expectation the audience has of a frontal position for the speaker will intensify small shifts, and large ones become dramatic: i.e. “the sweeping gesture”.

We can set a tone for a meeting by chair placement. Two chairs at a slight angle feels very different from directly facing each other. The distance says a lot, and placing someone closer than they feel comfortable will elicit defenses, as will too much open space which can make it hard to connect. Shifting in our chair during an interview can show a change of perspective on an issue. Overdone, it can seem evasive. If you wish to consider what you can do from seated, consider Raymond Burr in his role from the t.v. show Ironside. He was a consummate head and shoulders actor, but still used the movement of the wheelchair to punctuate his conversations.

All these apply to speaking to groups. The size of the group affects the sense of proportion, i.e. a large audience calls for large or more focused gestures and movements. Intense, dramatic movements can be overpowering in small settings and sabotage rapport.

An audience sees all of this, and if it is consistent with normal actions, will understand it without consciously noticing. Non-verbal communication is so omnipresent that, like air, we just expect it and rarely give it conscious attention. However, like air, it can be rather useful, even vital.


February 3, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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