You might think that the majority of our communication is verbal. However, you will probably be surprised to learn that the majority of what we communicate to others is understood without a single word being spoken. You pick up the majority of your understanding of what is being communicated to you, or what the other person is trying not to communicate to you, through body language or non-verbal communication.
We communicate and express our feelings, attitudes, beliefs and values non-verbally. These messages are made clear by such things as our facial expressions or our eye contact or lack of it.
Our active listening skills are also evident in non-verbal communication. For example, you show interest if you lean forward when speaking to someone, or if you make linking phrases such as, ‘You were just saying’. You can support this by making good and appropriate eye contact. (If you look at someone for too long they might think that you are angry with them or trying to intimidate them. If you make fleeting eye contact, they might think that you are shy, lacking or confidence or uneasy about speaking to them.)
Appropriate non-verbal communication can therefore effectively support verbal communication. Some other forms of non-verbal communication include:
- Body movement: the way in which we walk, move our head, sit, cross our legs and fold our arms can indicate how we are feeling.
- Posture: sitting with crossed arms can indicate, ‘I’m not taking any notice’ or ‘I don’t trust you’, whereas leaning forward during a conversation can indicate, ‘I’m interested in what you are saying’ or ‘I am enjoying this conversation’.
- Muscle tension: the tension in our face, feet and hands can tell someone how relaxed (or not) we feel in any situation. We can use this to assess the distress that a situation might be causing an individual.
- Gestures: these are arm and hand movements that can help us to understand what a person is saying. Gestures can mean different things to different people, so it is good practice to understand from the perspective of the other individual what they are trying to say. A ‘thumbs up’ sign is universally understood as a positive gesture.
- Touch: touching is a key method of communication. A gentle hand on your shoulder or someone holding your hand can convey messages of care, affection and concern.
However, it is also a very emotive thing and many people don’t feel comfortable with touch. You should try to understand the individual and to assess whether touch is acceptable to them. It is also a good idea to assess whether it is an acceptable environment to use touch — for example, the privacy of someone’s bedroom might not be an appropriate environment to use touch as a means of communication.