How to Understand Non-Verbal Communication

Non-verbal communication, also referred to as body language, refers to facial expressions, gestures and postures that send a message. Someone might say one thing verbally while their body language communicates a totally different message. Therefore, understanding non-verbal communication is very important for effective interaction with others. In many cases, first impressions are based on a person’s body language.

The following are some common examples of body language to look out for:

1. Defensiveness

Meetings such as those involving setting targets or performance appraisal are usually filled with tension. The other person is likely to be defensive and unreceptive to what is being said. In other words, your message could be falling on ‘deaf ears’. The following are some indications that someone is feeling defensive:

  • Minimal facial expressions
  • Little eye contact
  • Crossed arms
  • Body turned away from you
  • Limited hand gestures

When you identify such signs, you need to find a way of making the other person feel more receptive and at ease. Communicate your message in a more friendly way and make sure your body language matches your words.

2. Disengagement

When speaking to people, you would want them to be fully engaged in what you are saying. However, at times, you might find yourself giving a presentation to an audience which is not interested. Here are some of the signs that your audience is not engaged:

  • People are slumped in their seats
  • Eyes are glazed or focused elsewhere
  • Heads are bowed
  • Hands are fiddling with objects
  • People are doodling or whispering to each other

When you notice that someone is disengaged, find a way of getting back their attention. One of the best ways of doing this is by asking them a direct question. For instance, you could ask them to repeat what you have just said.

3. Lying

Here are some of the signs that show someone is lying:

  • Speaking with fingers or hands covering the mouth
  • Rapid eye movements
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Body physically turned away from you
  • Increased perspiration
  • Changes in color e.g. turning red in the face
  • Throat clearing and stammering

However, when you see such signs, don’t immediately jump to conclusions. Some people might just be nervous and not necessarily lying. Instead, take time to ask more probing questions to find out if they are being truthful.

4. Reflection

When asked a question, many people take time to think it through before giving an answer. This could be in a negotiation or an interview situation. Here are some signs that show a person is taking time to ponder:

  • Finger stroking chin
  • Looking away and then making eye contact when answering
  • Hand to cheek

Everyone is unique and reacts differently to situations. Their actions are mainly influenced by culture as well as past experiences. You should therefore take time to verify your interpretation of other people’s body language. The best way of doing this is by getting to know the other person better. Ask as many questions as possible to check if your assumptions are correct.  


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