Communication encompasses breathing, pulse, perspiration, blushing. It uses the unconscious and conscious transmission and interpretation of feelings, attitudes, moods, and thoughts through; body posture, movement, physical state, position and relationship to other bodies, objects, surroundings, and combines with facial and eye movement. This transmission can be much different than the spoken word. (adapted from buisinessballs.com)
One of my favorite things to do in this world is to people watch. There’s nothing more fun than sitting at a local caffeine shop to take in the interactions between friends, lovers, parents and their kids, strangers, or just an individual with themselves.
One of my favorite places to do this was Paris, France. I spent a couple of weeks there a few years back and feel as if I learned more about the interactions between people in those two weeks than I had in my previous 28 years of existence (I’m 34 now, but if anyone asks lets just say I’m 29).
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there – (if you have shoot me an email and let me know about your experience, I loved it!) you can literally sit outside at a coffee shop, breakfast joint, etc..; on the corner of a main street in the heart of Paris, all day long and watch people come and go.
Because I was unable to speak French at the time I was forced to watch body language, facial expressions, and gestures to try to piece together the interactions of others.
This was something I had been doing at all of the stops during my trip around the world but for some reason my time in Paris allowed for the best understanding of how humans communicate with each other non-verbally. When I got back to the states the habit of people watching stuck with me. Every so often I’d sit at a park, Starbucks, restaurant, or bar and watch how everyone interacts with each other. I wanted to learn more about non-verbal communication and what better way to combine active research out in the field with some reading.
I wanted to know how I could use body language and non-verbal communication to better express and understand myself as well as how to interpret others to help me understand them and communicate with them more effectively.
Here’s what I got for you.
Non-verbal communication is old school
The foundation for any good relationship, whether it be with yourself, a friend, lover, family member, or even a stranger is communication. It reveals cues to our intentions, attitudes, state of mind, and desires. However, words are easily manipulated and can often be confusing and leave more questions unanswered than they actually answer.
Body language and non-verbal communication on the other hand is our oldest form of communication. We are pre-programmed to communicate with one another using various postures, hand gestures, eye movement, and other forms of non-verbal expressions to not only help reinforce words but also as a substitute for them. In a sense non-verbal communication becomes a replacement for words and a very descriptive, honest, and accurate one at that.
Why we use body language to communicate
Research conducted by James Borg, author of Persuasion has stated that non-verbal communication (body language + paralinguistic cues) can account for up to 93% of the way you and I communicate with ourselves and others. That means that only 7% of communication can be attributed to verbal or the spoken word. That’s cray cray!
Further research suggests that the spoken word contributes to about 5-10% of all communication with ranges of around 25-35% being the tone that you use, and 55%-70% being the body language that you’re presenting. This shows me that the need to understand non-verbal cues between one another is of the highest importance in order to build stronger relationships with not only one another but the self as well.
Our body language is used as a way to express:
- Sexual attraction
- And a host of other emotions and feelings
This is usually done through the following:
- Facial expressions – Usually universal signals that are understood across various cultures like a smile.
- Body movement and posturing – The way you sit, walk, or stand
- Gestures – These usually have different meanings and are interpreted differently across various cultures. The middle finger, a wave, pointing, etc…
- Eye contact – This is one of the most dominant forms of non-verbal communication and often a strong indication of levels of interest, uneasiness, honesty, thought, etc… Maybe the eyes are really the path to the soul.
- Touch/Physical – Think about what a firm or weak handshake means to you, when someone touches your shoulder or grabs your arm, a hug, or a high-five.
- Voice and tone – The pitch of your words, speed of speech, and delivery
- Space – Distances between people as the interact
I’ll touch on a little bit of all of these throughout this post but I wanted to make note of space as a form of non verbal communication.
Edward T. Hall formulated a concept known as proxemics which is how we use space as a form of non-verbal communication with one another.
He noticed the following:
- Intimate relationship communication – Lovers, kids, family, and most friends is usually conducted within in touching distance to 16 inches
- Personal relationship communication – Acquaintances, associates, and co-workers. Usually arms length (18 inches to 4 feet).
- Social distance – Reserved usually for strangers, new groups, and other acquaintances you may not feel as comfortable with. Typically about 4-8 feet away.
- Public distance – Speeches, theatre, and large audiences. Usually 8 feet or more away.
Paying attention to the distance between you and someone you are in communication you are with can lend some insight as to what sort of relationship you have with one another.
How we use body language to communicate
We move our bodies, change tones, and use facial expressions as a way to ease the mental effort that is necessary to communicate verbally. Trying to come up with the right word, give advice, or express yourself verbally is exhausting. I’ve given a few speeches and the mental preparation and practice that it takes is truly taxing.
We also use our bodies as a way to show our true emotional intentions because whatever we’re feeling often shows up first in the body, our minds then act on delay. There’s simply too much body language to control consciously.
- Facial displays
- Feet positions
- Eye movement
- Body position
- Rapid heart beat
This is why concealing emotions or feelings is so easy verbally but if you pay attention to someone elses body language or even your own you can catch that delay and recognize the true emotional intent of yourself or someone else.
I don’ t know about you but I’m a blusher. If I’m embarrassed or smitten with someone my red cheeks are a dead giveaway and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.
Body language serves a couple different roles for us:
- As a substitution for the verbal message we are trying to express
- As a contradiction
- Repetition of the verbal message
- As a complement to our verbal message (high-five, pat on the back, kick in the shin…)
- To accent the verbal message we are trying to communicate
(importance of effective communication, Edward Wertheim Ph.d)
It is used to increase trust, build rapport, create clarity, diffuse tension, and eliminate confusion. However, it can also create the flip side of all of those positive traits if used improperly.
How to improve your communication without saying a word
Effective communication is often the “perception” you create versus what you are actually saying. The truth is as humans we are easily swayed by people we like or dislike, are familiar with, if we receive compliments, those that are similar to us, and by those we find attractive or are attracted to.
More effective communication is both a science and an art. It is not only the signals that you receive or give off to someone but also how those signals are applied or expressed.
After diving into some books, research, and articles here is what I’ve come up with for more effective non-verbal… we’ll I guess, just more effective communication in general. So fellas, next time your girl asked you how she looks in that dress you’ll now know how to respond properly.
What exactly is effective communication?
It involves both thinking and feeling. Here are the four core concepts of effective communication.
- Paying attention to those non-verbal cues
- Stress management
- Emotional intelligence (if you’re out of touch with this you could be in trouble).
So how do you use these concepts?
- Pay attention to consistency or inconsistencies between the spoken word and non-verbal cues. For example if someone is saying how excited they are but slumped over in a chair they may be fudging a little bit.
- Lump non-verbal cues together: Someone simply crossing their arms might mean they are standoffish but it could also mean that they are just cold. Combine cues like arms crossed, tight lips, or constantly looking around to give you a better insight.
- Trust your instincts: No kidding, your gut has more neurons in it than a cat does in their head. It knows a thing or two, trust it more often. If you can that little feeling down there (no not there, get your head out of the gutter) trust it more often – it’s probably right.
- Practice makes perfect: Seriously, get out there and people watch or have more conversations. You’ll start to notice differences across cultures, individuals, age, and gender.
A tendency you may develop is to place a lot of emphasis on trying to read facial expressions. At the University of Princeton a study was conducted comparing body language and facial expression. Four separate experiments were conducted in which all showed that body language was a better predictor of emotional intent than facial expression.
Participants were shown stock photos of either a body, a face, or the body and face of six emotional peaks (pain, pleasure, victory, defeat, grief, and joy). Those that saw the facial photos were only able to accurately guess the emotional response 50% of the time. Those that viewed the body only were able to more accurately guess the emotion being expressed (read the full study here).
“…Instead, facial movements may be “much blurrier” than those theories account for, Todorov said. In particular, he and his colleagues suggest that when emotions reach a certain intensity, the intricacies of facial expressions become lost, similar to “increasing the volume on stereo speakers to the point that it becomes completely distorted,” he said.
“There’s much more ambiguity in the face than we assume there is,” Todorov said. “We assume that the face conveys whatever is in the person’s mind, that we can recognize their emotions. But that’s not necessarily true. If we remove all the other contextual clues, we might not be so good at picking out emotional cues…”
What this study tells us is that the face may reveal hints as to what someone is feeling but it doesn’t necessarily communicate that emotion effectively and in instead we may do ourselves more good by paying attention to what the body is telling us.
Improving your ability to communicate today
In her Tedx talk Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy shows us that the way we position our bodies can actually change the way hormones are used and produced on our bodies. Real changes will occur simply from the way you position your arms, legs, and body.
The two hormones primarily affected are testosterone; which influences our ability to focus, think clearer, and self-confidence. Cortisol is the other hormone influenced by our bodily positions. Cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body cause those feelings of overwhelmed, anxiety, and stress.
For better body language Amy tells us to:
Use a pencil: Well sort of, she recommends the “pencil in the mouth” that forces a smile. Your brain will recognize the pattern of smiling and begin to make you feel better, happier, and more confident
Practice the power poses: In her studies it was shown that specific positions will cause testosterone levels to increase and cortisol levels to decrease. This can instantly change how you are thinking and feeling about yourself.
A few examples of power poses
Versus some examples of low power poses
Yo Justin, any other tips to get better at this?
Just like in many aspects of life, self-awareness might just be the most powerful tool you can use for self-improvement. By simply paying attention and checking your posture every so often you can tremendously affect the way you feel about yourself and are perceived. Small adjustments to your posture might just be the difference between getting that job you want, lady or dude you’re eyeing, or feeling batter about a big test you’re about to take or presentation you’re about to give.
- For better decision-making relax by practicing breathing techniques, meditation, or other stress relieving methods.
- To better connect with others try mirroring their facial expressions, posture, and tone.
- To connect with your kids try kneeling to put yourself on their level. It will make them more comfortable and safe.
- Improve your willpower by tensing up. Like when you’re about to get a shot at the doctor’s office, get in a cold shower, or drink some terrible tasting medicine.
- Make yourself tiny to eat less. By sitting smaller, with your knees in your chest for example, and generally just taking up less space you will have a tendency to eat less at each sitting (2).
- Rest up for better insight. By lying down you may be able to enhance your critical thinking and creativity (3)
- It’s all in your approach. Start a conversation with someone, approach them to ask a question. It will make you feel more powerful. (4)
Our emotions and expressions are contagious. We will adapted to those of others to better build rapport and others will do the same with you.
Have you noticed any significant changes in the way you feel or behave simply by changing your body language? Do you respond to others differently based on the body language you see from them?
There’s a lot of information here but I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on body language, effective communication, and how it has affected your career, health, and relationships.