Psychological Awareness Tip: Tune in to Non-Verbal Communication

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Non-Verbal Communication

Psychological awareness is also supported by non-verbal communication.  It allows you to gain a deeper understanding of what people are saying and how that communication is influencing the people involved. 

Peter Drucker[1] once said,

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

It’s a telling statement, most people think that our communication comes from the words we use, but it doesn’t.  The words we use are only a part of our communication.  In fact, research suggests that the words we use only make up about 7% of our communication[2].  This means that 93% of our communication is non-verbal.

Still, while many of us aren’t conscious of the non-verbal communication we observe, we are aware of it.  You can tell a lot about what is going on simply by observing – for example, is the person angry, sad, or anxious.  You can ‘see this’ from a distance without getting close to the person and without hearing them utter a single word.  This transfer of information is non-verbal communication. 

In contrast, you might be listening to someone’s words, but at the same time, observe that their non-verbal language is not aligned with the words they are using.  One example might be someone giving a speech who is using powerful, strong words, but the person’s non-verbal communication suggests anxiety.  The two pieces of the communication don’t align, so the message of strength that comes from the words is lost and overtaken by the non-verbal communication that displays anxiety – remember, 93% of the message comes from non-verbal cues.  Don’t forget what Drucker’s said, hearing what’s not said is more important than the words used.

Non-Verbal Communication and Psychological Awareness

While almost everyone has the capacity to ‘hear’ non-verbal language, psychological awareness takes it one step further.  Someone with psychological awareness can be conscious of non-verbal language and there are two good reasons for this.

First, being aware of someone else’s non-verbal language allows you to detect mismatches and then be more thoughtful about the reasons for the mismatch.  It opens the door to consider a range of other possible circumstances that might be causing the mismatch.  For example, when you see a mismatch, you might consider the person’s emotions more carefully, think about what might be driving those emotions, and take steps to address those issues. 

Second, being aware of your own non-verbal language allows you to ensure that the words and non-verbal language are aligned.  It is one of the things that allows a person to present a strong message that people accept because the verbal and non-verbal language are aligned.  If you don’t have conscious awareness of non-verbal communication, there will be times where the two match, but other times where they don’t.

Non-Verbal Language Isn’t Always Available

Ideally, verbal and non-verbal language are delivered together, but this is not always the case.  There are situations where it is not possible to observe non-verbal language so we must rely entirely on the words being used.

Before we developed electronic communication most interactions involved both verbal and non-verbal communication together.  Communication predominantly occurred when people come together.  They would listen to and observe each other, and this allowed them to engage with 100% of the communication.  Of course, written communication has also been used for a long time, though it tended to be the best educated or those with high social status that could use written communication.  In these cases though, written communication only provided access to the words which meant that 93% of the communication was missing.

A lot of written communication is described as dry, and this is largely because it leaves out 93% of the communication.  However, some writing, for example the words of a novel, poetry, or a song should not be ‘dry’.  While there is a lack of non-verbal communication in reading a novel, the manuscript includes detailed descriptions of the environment, the people involved in the story, and it allows the reader to picture themselves in an imaginary real world.  They are able to ‘import’ non-verbal communication into the words they use.

Today’s world is full of electronic communication devices, and we have had to build that into how we communicate with each other.  For most people, face-to-face communication, which includes non-verbal communication,  is still the preferred option.  However, a lot of electronic communications allow for the inclusion of ‘some’ non-verbal communication.  Consider phone calls, they rely on words but the two people still have access to the tone of voice as a mechanism of non-verbal communication.  When video communication became available, it wasn’t surprising that people took to it because it provided another avenue of non-verbal communication.  With verbal communication you can use the tone of voice as well as facial expressions, posture and behaviour.  

Alternately, when you consider electronic communication that is virtually devoid of non-verbal communication, miscommunication is rife because most of the communication is missing.  This might include things like SMSing and social media interactions where there is a desire to shorten every communication to minimise the number of characters used.

Categories of Non-Verbal Communication

While I am not intending to provide a detailed description of the various types of non-verbal language in this article, I would like to briefly comment on the broader categories of non-verbal communication.

Tone of Voice

The first and most obvious category is the person’s tone of voice.  If you think about it, if you are listening to someone speaking a different language, you will still get a sense of the person’s emotional responses to what they are saying – even if you don’t know the words they are using.  For example, without knowing what someone is saying, and without physically observing them, the tone of voice may tell you whether that person is sad, angry, experiencing grief, and so on.  This comes from the person’s use of their tone of voice which relates to things like the speed, loudness, timbre, pitch, persistence, and so on.

For example, if someone is speaking quickly and without taking a break, it may suggest anxiety or excitement, and you could usually tell the difference by the pitch of the voice – an excited person uses a higher pitch.  Or if someone is speaking slowly with a monotone voice with lower pitch, it is likely that the person is experiencing sadness, depression, or grief.

Facial Expressions

Another category of non-verbal communication is facial expression.  You need to ‘see’ the person to consider facial expression, but you might find it surprising that you can see a lot of what someone is communicating by looking at their face.  Psychologists identify emotions and most consider that there are only 7 or 8 separate emotional ranges.  Research shows that the facial expressions are relatively uniform.  Emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, disgust, excitement, enjoyment, contempt, and surprise all have separate facial expressions that tell us what the person is feeling.  These facial expressions are shared between individuals and across different cultures.  This means that even if you don’t understand the words someone is using, but you continue to listen to someone’s tone of voice, you can also learn a lot about how the person is feeling by observing the person’s facial expression. 

Posture and Behaviour

Another category of non-verbal communication relates to an observation of the person’s posture and behaviour.  This category involves things like our posture which includes the way we stand and whether we are using a closed or open posture, or our inclination to the other person and how we are oriented.  These are all elements of posture that provide information about how connected we are to the other person in that moment, whether we want to leave the situation or stay engaged, and so on.

Proximity is another form of non-verbal communication and some researchers have measured distances between people to help them identify whether an interaction is intimate, angry, friendly, or distant. 

Gestures provide another clue about non-verbal communication. There are broadly two types of gestures: communicative and informative gestures.  Communicative gestures are intentional and used to modify or intensify the words being used.  Informative gestures are passive and tell you about the speaker, not about what they are saying.  This will include things like nervousness, sweating and agitation.

Another part of the posture and behaviour category relates to the person’s eye gaze.  Again you can examine eye gaze separately and use this to detect things like interest, aggression, flirtation, or loss of attention as examples.

The final variation is touch. This includes things like handshakes, hugs, shoulder touches, head touches and so on.  Touching tends to be more variable across cultures and between subcultures, but it still provides clues about the nature of the relationship between the people communicating.

Developing Non-Verbal Communication Skills

A great starting point is to learn about the various categories of non-verbal communication and to be sure that you understand their significance and know what you are looking for.

The next thing I would do is try and observe different types of non-verbal communication in different situations.  I recommend two situations, oddly enough, the first is television, and the second is ‘people watching’.

Watching people on television allows you to analyse the non-verbal language of actors whose expertise comes from being able to transform written words to real emotions for the camera.  You can do this in several stages.  First you could watch a short piece with the sound on which will make it easier to identify what is occurring in the film strip.  Then, go back and watch it again with the sound turned off.  As you watch without sound, go through the various types of non-verbal communication techniques and notice whether they are being used or not.  As you do this, you will notice that a lot of the meaning comes from what you are seeing; you almost don’t need the words anymore.

Then look at a different video, but this time reverse the order.  So, instead of watching and listening first, observe the video without sound and identify the non-verbal cues that help you to understand what is happening.  Then, add the sound and see how close you were.

You might have heard about people talking about ‘people watching’.  In essence it means taking up a position and just watching the people around you.  A convenient location could be a café with a view of the outside world, perhaps on a footpath where people are moving around, or near a place where people congregate for some reason.  In this setting, simply observe people and consciously think about the experience of other people.  This might involve observing someone who is alone, or it might mean observing two people or groups of people.

Conclusion: Psychological Awareness and Non-Verbal Communication

Another way of thinking about psychological awareness is that it delivers the ability to consciously connect.  Non-verbal communication allows you to consciously add to the communication between two or more people.  Non-verbal communication makes up about 93% of the communication process, and we can all respond to that, but bringing it to conscious awareness allows you to use that information to influence your responses and behaviour.  Being aware of your own non-verbal communication allows you to ensure that your communications with other people are aligned with what you want to say and ensure that your words are supported by your non-verbal language, making sure they are aligned and increasing the potency of what you are trying to say.

[1] Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was a well-known management consultant who contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of modern management theory.

[2] S Ferris A Mehrabian, ‘Decoding of Inconsistent Communication’ (1967) 6 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109.

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Dr Schultz spent 22 years working in psychiatry and then went on to qualify as a lawyer. He has spent 34 years helping people solve problems and the unique combination of medicine, psychiatry, law and mediation provides a unique academic and practical approach to life's challenges.

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