Nonverbal Communication – the Ultimate Soft Skill?

Interpersonal communication is a huge part of leadership. The ability to get your message across, whether it’s a simple instruction or a complex expectation, is very important. Some believe that being a good leader means being able to get things done in the quickest, most efficient way; less concerned with the method, as with the result. Many of us have worked for the type of manager who marches in, tells us what to do and then leaves, often leaving us feeling both undervalued and used. In this scenario it not as much what is said but what is unsaid.

In his book, Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others, James Flaherty (2010) stated that “language forms the basis for observation and it is, in fact, not possible to make any observation outside language”. So how is language defined in this context? Flaherty’s contention is that “language is an orientation to our common world”.  Language then is not just the words we use but also includes observable behaviours, tone and intonation. Several studies have described communication in this breakdown: 7% by the spoken word, 38% by tone and intonation and a full 55% by body language such as gestures, eye contact, posture, personal space (Mehrabian, 1971). Although there is continuing debate on the validity of these studies, it only makes sense that how you say something and your body posture when saying it will have some effect on how the message is perceived and received.

Other studies show that if a person’s nonverbal communication and verbal communication don’t match in terms of message, the listener is more likely to doubt the speaker’s verity. Improving your nonverbal communication therefore can help improve your overall ability to both send and receive messages.

Improving your nonverbal communication starts with awareness. Paying attention to how you use your body when you are talking or listening to someone. An open stance, frequent (but not continuous) eye contact), nods, and a relaxed posture help to communicate that you are open and approachable, and that you are communicating honestly. A closed stance, folding your arms across your chest, staring at the floor, or refusing to make eye contact all indicate that you are not listening, or that you are not communicating openly. Shifting from foot to foot, pacing, or otherwise moving continuously indicate impatience. We do many things without conscious thought, especially when we are otherwise busy. In my coaching practice I work with my clients to be able to slow down, be in the present and take time to notice both their own nonverbal communication and others’, and especially their reaction to others, and from there, to understand their own mental and physiological reactions and to respond in an appropriate manner.

This is the fifth in a series of posts exploring Soft Skills and why they are so important to your success in any endeavour.