There’s a magic key to getting what you want and what you need in life. No, this isn’t clickbait. I’m talking about the foundation of social interactions—communication.
From ordering a coffee to acing a job interview, this skill is at the core of everything you do. Getting it right is crucial. So, how do you go about perfecting your nonverbal communication? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Nonverbal Communication?
Nonverbal communication ‘includes all communicative acts except speech,’ according to the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. While you may not realize it, you’re saying a whole lot to people without ever moving your lips.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not merely about your facial expressions. Research has shown that what you do with your body actually makes a much larger impact on the person who you’re communicating with.
Needless to say, if you’re looking to become a pro communicator, mastering the art of body language is a great place to start. Here’s what you need to know.
Types of Nonverbal Communication
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s merely one type of body language. Everything that you do—from how you gesticulate to how you move your body as you walk—tells its own story along the way.
In fact, a 2016 study in the Journal of Management highlights five different types of nonverbal communication. Let’s take a moment to look at what they are.
1. Adaptors: A sign of anxiety
One of the major ways that we unconsciously tell others how we’re feeling is through the act of touch. You may touch your ear, twirl your fingers, or touch your own hair. These small, insignificant-seeming acts tell people a lot about your emotions and internal state.
For example, when you touch your face as you talk, it could be taken as a sign of inner anxiety. Perhaps you’re nervous and worry about what the other person thinks of you. Perhaps you’re unsure of the words you’re saying and you’re trying to mask that.
2. Emblems: Socially learned gestures
Of course, there are some signs that we all understand and use as a form of communication naturally. You might wave, nod, or put your thumbs up to someone in the street. We each know what these gestures mean and there’s no need for an explanation.
3. Illustrators: Show us what you mean
You may not even realize you’re using illustrators as you talk—but you likely are. These are the movements you make that show people what you’re talking about.
For example, you may point at something to illustrate your point. You might move your hands in a certain way to show that you’re talking about the big picture.
Equally, you could draw a shape in the air with your hands, which helps to get across whatever point you’re trying to prove.
As a fun little experiment, watch people when they are talking to you. You would not believe just how many people use these without being conscious of it. It comes naturally to most of us, even though we rarely consider it.
4. Regulators: Keep the conversation moving
Have you noticed these? When you’re talking, you might unconsciously make small movements that keep the conversation going. From nodding your head to tilting it to the side, these unconscious motions are called regulators.
Oh, and there’s a reason that we use them. Keeping the natural flow of conversation is the key to everyone feeling comfortable and reassured. (Let’s be honest—nobody likes to deal with awkward silences.) Small, reassuring gestures help avoid just that, even when we’re not speaking. Simple.
5. Affect Displays: Your face says it all
Ever wondered how people can tell when you’re lying? You might say you’re ‘doing fine,’ but if your face tells another story, that’s a real problem. Often enough we can’t control the messages we convey through facial expressions.
For example, you might find that you go bright red when you’re feeling embarrassed or that your mouth turns naturally downward when you’re sad. These things are likely out of your control. The problem is that they tell the other person just how you feel without you uttering a word. Oops.
Tricks to Mastering Nonverbal Communication
For a little help in this area, we can look to the aptly named guide, The Definitive Book of Body Language. Written by Allan and Barbara Pease, experts in human relations, the bestseller explores some of the most common forms of body language and the messages that they send to the outside world. Here are a few tricks to try for yourself.
#1: Learn How to Smile Genuinely
Never underestimate the power of a smile. In social interactions, this small and subtle facial expression can hold a whole lot of weight. It conveys happiness, of course, but there’s more to it than that. It’s also about confidence and strength. Happy people are stable people—they are sure of themselves.
A Smile is Priceless
So, how do you create a genuine smile? Well, it’s pretty simple. The truth of the matter is that there’s an obvious difference between a fake smile and a genuine smile.
It’s all about the eyes. When you try to smile, despite not feeling particularly happy, you will naturally pull the edges of your mouth backward. Nice try…but you’re not fooling anyone.
To produce a genuine smile, you also need to engage the eyes as well. You should notice that lines form around your eyes when this happens. (It could help to look at old pictures of yourself where you’re genuinely smiling and take note of your eyes.)
A simple way to sum this up is by using pop culture. Oh, yes. ‘Smeyes,’ a term coined by Top Model’s Tyra Banks (thanks, Urban Dictionary), means the act of smiling with your eyes.
#2: The ‘Right’ Way to Shake a Hand
Ah, the humble handshake! Whether you’re meeting the parents or opening a job interview, this brief social interaction says more than you might imagine.
It’s not just about reaching out and doing what feels natural; the way that you do it tells the other person how you feel about them and where you see yourself in the pecking order. It all has to do with how you hold your hand as you reach forward, according to Allan and Barbara Pease.
If your palm is facing downward when you reach out, you’re conveying a message of dominance. In using this angle, you’re forcing the other person to slightly expose their palm by turning it upward to meet you.
The message that you’re conveying here is simple: you are in control of the situation and you’re the one taking the lead here. You might think that this is a ‘strong power move,’ but be careful. It can quickly rub people the wrong way.
Unsurprisingly, the upward palm has the opposite effect. It could be seen as a weak position to take. You’re showing the other person that you’re willing to submit to them or that they are in control. You’re literally giving them the upper hand. In a business scenario, that can be particularly dangerous.
The ‘Right’ Handshake
The right way to shake someone’s hand is pretty simple—you need to take a neutral position. That means that the hand is neither facing upward or downward. You literally meet the other person in the middle and show them that the two of you are equals.
#3: The Power of a Touch
Not a touchy-feely kind of guy? This next tip might be hard to handle. Hear it out, though, as it could boost your social interactions more than you know. Simply touching another person—lightly and briefly—could have a huge impact on them.
There’s a wealth of research to suggest that this small, human gesture changes the way that people see you. Not only does this gesture mean that you leave a lasting impression, but it also creates an instant affinity between you and the other person.
How to get it right
Of course, we all know that some people shy away from ever touching other people (or being touched) unless they know them well. That is something that has to be respected here. You don’t want to cross any social boundaries or make the other person feel uncomfortable.
That’s why you need to keep the touch brief. A simple pat on someone’s forearm could do the trick. Don’t linger for too long. Keep things friendly and light. This does not have to be some uber intense touch (not by a long shot!) but just enough to show them that you’re a warm/open person.
Touching someone has the power to create an instant connection with them. All too often, we create distance between one another by holding ourselves back—both physically and emotionally. Reaching out to make contact with the other person could be the key to breaking down barriers and building a genuine relationship with them.
Getting nonverbal down is a solid foundation to effective communication. Of course, you may find consciously altering your body language weird when you first start out. It feels unnatural to be hyper-aware of your gestures and control them accordingly. However, the longer you give it, the more natural it will feel. Practice makes perfect.