Nonverbal Communication: 5 Ways You're Communicating Without Speaking

Mary Clare Novak
Mary Clare Novak  |  March 21, 2019

It’s not what you said. Or even how you said it. It was your actions.

The typical way people communicate is by sending and receiving messages using either written or oral communication channels. But what about sending and seeing messages? People tend to forget the amount we can “say” with nonverbal communication and the impact it can have on our overall message.

What is nonverbal communication?

Everything we do communicates. Speaking, of course, is the most obvious way to get a message across. But even without speaking we can send countless messages. Rolling our eyes means we are annoyed. Yawning means we are tired. And sometimes, whether we mean for someone to see these actions or not, they do, and the message is received.

Nonverbal communication happens everywhere, but there are certain settings where paying extra attention to our nonverbal messages, and those of others, is more important.

Nonverbal communication in business

If there is one place to be conscious of our nonverbal communication, it is in the workplace. People at all levels and professions are expected to carry themselves in a certain manner. Whether you are a C-level executive or an entry-level employee, every person on a team is expected to look presentable and maintain interest throughout the day.

5 types of nonverbal communication

Just like verbal and written communication, there are countless ways to execute nonverbal communication, but they all fall under one of five categories.

Facial expressions

A facial expression is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys our emotional state. When we receive information or experience a physical sensation, the muscles on our face move to create a universally recognized look.

Variations and even combinations exist, but our facial expressions typically fit into one of the six categories of basic human emotions: happiness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, and sadness.

Of all forms of nonverbal communication, our facial expressions are shown most unconsciously. We have little to no control over our initial reactions to information or sensations. The instant we interpret a message our facial expression tends to match the way we feel about it.

There are certain situations where our emotions are inappropriate and our facial expressions might call for some readjusting. Here is a quick example.

After a rough week of work, you are looking forward to a much needed weekend of rest and relaxation. Right as you are about to go home on Friday and kick your feet up with a pint of ice cream and a new TV series, your manager calls you into her office. Uh-oh. They explain they are unable to make a dinner that was scheduled with one of the company’s most loyal clients that night and needs you to step in.

girl with good and bad facial expressions

Your pre-weekend energy leaves your body and your face falls into a small but noticeable pout. That is the last thing your manager wanted to see when they trusted you with this opportunity. In this situation, no matter how hard it might be, changing your expression to excitement and enthusiasm is your best bet to show that while you may be tired, you are still a trustworthy employee who is dedicated to your work.

It might be tricky at times, but try to approach work with a positive attitude and facial expression!

Body language

Body language is a type of nonverbal communication that includes physically moving or positioning ourselves to communicate our feelings. Reading the body language of others is just as important as adjusting our own to avoid sending an unintentional message.

A substantial part of body language happens through posture. Posture is the way we hold our bodies. Whether we are sitting or standing, most of it comes naturally as muscle memory. However, if you are a natural sloucher it would be wise to correct it. Not only is good posture a healthy habit to practice, but it can give a good impression in the workplace.

Slouching over a computer or hunching over while walking to the printer sends a negative message: you are tired and unenthused to be at work. On the other hand, sitting up straight with your chin up shows you are ready and excited to work.

An important time to pay extra close attention to your posture is when you have been sitting in the same place for a long time. It’s easy to gradually slip down into your chair, lean back, and even be tempted to put your feet up, but it sends a message that you are counting the seconds for the day to end.

good and bad body language with quotes

Gestures also contribute to body language. A gesture is a movement of the head or hands that communicates a message. Common gestures include nodding our head, shaking someone’s hand, or giving a thumbs up.

Certain little habits we do every day without consideration are considered gestures and might come off as negative. Biting fingernails can imply nerves. Crossing arms shows disinterest. Fidgeting with a pen indicates anxiousness.

While we may not notice our body language, others do. Pay attention to how you are carrying yourself and make sure it is sending the right message.

Eye contact

Meeting someone’s eyes can be scary. Whether we are looking at someone we just met or someone we’ve wronged, it can take a little extra courage. As intimidating as this can be, it is worth getting comfortable with. Eye contact can send more messages than you think.

Making eye contact can imply confidence, which goes a long way in business. There are certain statements that can be found confident and fearful, making eye contact the deciding factor. Here’s an example.

Say you are having an average day. You are not particularly happy or sad, energetic or tired, but indifferent. Your manager calls over to you and assigns you a project. You respond with, “I’ll get it done.”

The verbal communication isn't the problem here. If said while meeting that manager’s eyes, the simple “I’ll get it done” means you are engaged and ready to tackle another project. If said while staring at your shoes, the “I’ll get it done” can imply you are disinterested and dreading the project. 

good and bad eye contact with quotes

Our eyes are meant to meet someone else’s. Look people in the eye when you talk to them.

Appearance

The way we present ourselves with different clothes and hairstyles says a lot about who we are and how much we care for ourselves. Because there are countless different workplace environments with contrasting ranges of formality, this can mean something different for everyone.

If you work at a gym, you will obviously want to wear something that is easy to move in, showing you are ready to engage in physical activity. On the other hand, if you work in an office, you might be expected to dress a little more on the professional side.

Dress codes may differ, but body maintenance is universally appreciated in the workplace. Coming into work looking disheveled sends the wrong message.

Give yourself a second look before going into work. Even if you aren’t so concerned about it yourself, you don’t want to risk sending the wrong message to others.

Proxemics

Proxemics refers to the space we leave between us and the people we are talking to. When speaking, especially in a business environment, we must gauge the appropriate amount of room to leave. Too much or too little space can make people uncomfortable, causing a negative interpretation of your message.

When confronting a coworker, client, or anyone really, make sure the space left is big enough so they don’t feel uncomfortable, but not too big that the conversation seems impersonal. Standing too close can be intimidating, but standing too far might send a message that you aren’t fully invested in them.

Take action

Nonverbal communication is rarely done consciously. Our bodies tend to respond to messages or our own feelings before our mouths do. Take an extra minute to evaluate the messages you are sending, with or without words.

If you aren’t so worried about your actions, but more concerned about your words, check out some verbal communication tips to bring it all together.  

Mary Clare Novak
Author

Mary Clare Novak

Mary Clare Novak is a Content Marketing Associate at G2 Crowd in Chicago. A recent graduate from Indiana University, she is happy to be back working in her favorite city. In her free time, you can find her doing a crossword puzzle, making a mess in the kitchen, or socializing.