How to Give the Right Nonverbal Communication Cues
“This looks good.”
Imagine your team member just said that to you, accompanied by a big smile and an enthusiastic head nod. You’re feeling encouraged, right?
Now imagine they said those exact same words but with a flat tone of voice and a blank expression.
Yikes. Those are different messages, aren’t they?
Even though the words didn’t change, your impression and understanding certainly did. It’s proof that in order to be an effective communicator, you need to be mindful of nonverbal communication.
What is nonverbal communication?
Nonverbal communication is an umbrella term for all of the communication cues you send that may have nothing to do with the actual words you’re speaking or writing.
Think it’s only about body language? Not quite. There are a lot of everyday life elements at play here, and the different types of nonverbal communication can be broken into two buckets of nonverbal behaviors:
Vocal: Voice pitch, volume, speaking rate, etc.
Nonvocal: Gestures, mannerisms, posture, eye contact, facial expressions, etc.
All of these body movements have a big impact on how nonverbal messages are received by others. Muttering “That’s fine …” under your breath with a subtle eye roll makes a way different impression than saying “That’s fine!” with raised eyebrows and a thumbs up. 👍
Nonverbal communication says a lot (without actually saying it)
The conversation about nonverbal communication skills isn’t a new one. There’s an oft-repeated statistic that a whopping 93% of our communication is nonverbal signals — although that claim has been criticized as being based on a deficient analysis.
Communication can be tough to quantify, but there’s no denying that nonverbal cues carry a lot of weight (even if they can’t be nailed down with a specific digit). Here’s why:
Nonverbal communication increases understanding. Nonverbal cues reinforce the meaning of what you’re saying. That’s a big part of the reason that emails and other written messages are misinterpreted so often — they lack nonverbal context. One study found that recipients of a two-word email (like “good job”) interpreted it as sarcastic 60% of the time, even when that wasn’t the author’s intent. In short, nonverbal cues are important for boosting clarity and reducing crossed wires.
Nonverbal communication keeps conversations flowing. Conversations have a natural back and forth. There’s no formal handbook for how these exchanges unfold — rather, it’s nonverbal communication that keeps them rolling. When somebody furrows their eyebrows, leans forward, and has their mouth slightly agape, you assume they’re getting ready to ask a question. “We also signal our turn is coming to an end by stopping hand gestures and shifting our eye contact to the person who we think will speak next,” explains a research paper from the University of Minnesota. Your nonverbal cues help conversations flow without constant interruptions and toe-stepping.
Nonverbal communication is reliable. Your unspoken cues can say a lot about what you’re thinking — before a word even leaves your lips. So much of nonverbal communication is often automatic, unintentional, and reveals a lot about your emotional reactions. That makes these signals trustworthy and reliable, especially when they’re paired with verbal communication.
Needless to say, nonverbal cues shouldn’t be an afterthought or looked at as a supplement to effective communication — they’re a critical piece of the puzzle on their own.
One important thing to note is that cultural norms have a big impact on nonverbal communication and how it’s perceived. While Americans smile at strangers to be polite, that same expression seems suspicious in Russia. That’s one example of many, but bear in mind that nonverbal communication isn’t always as “universal” as we think it is.
Related reading: The Importance of Effective Communication — The Loom Blog
4 tips to make your nonverbal communication thumbs up-worthy
Now that we know what nonverbal communication is and what it conveys, what cues do you need to be mindful of? How can you make sure that your unspoken signals don’t betray or sabotage your message? And what about when you’re working remotely? Do all of the rules about nonverbal communication go out the window?
Not exactly. Here are some ways you can ace this important aspect of communication — whether you and your team are working side-by-side or from your respective kitchen tables.
1. Ditch your distractions. 📵
Effective communication isn’t just about getting your own point across. Listening to other people is equally (if not more) important. Yet, many of us fall victim to distractions — and it’s a surefire way to frustrate our conversational partners. Our eyes shift, our minds wander, and our nonverbal cues show our team members that we aren’t fully immersed in the discussion.
This divided focus also tanks our comprehension. One study found that participants taking a reading comprehension assessment answered questions correctly 20% less often when they were interrupted by an instant message or even thought they might be interrupted.
Being an effective communicator requires that you’re also a good listener, and nonverbal communication is one of the biggest indicators of how attentive you are.
Do this in person:
Avoid doing any unrelated work during the meeting on your laptop, phone, or other devices so you can be fully present in the conversation.
Maintain eye contact with the person who’s speaking (more on this a little later!).
Do this remotely:
Resist the temptation to scroll through social media or answer emails during a video meeting. People can tell when you’re distracted and not fully engaged.
Turn your phone, email, and instant messaging platforms to “do not disturb” so constant pings and buzzes aren’t interrupting your conversations and averting your gaze.
2. Maintain eye contact. 👁
We’ve briefly touched on eye contact already, but it's worth reiterating how the lack of eye contact impacts your own nonverbal communication. How much eye contact you make is a key component of effective communication and active listening, as it demonstrates that you’re completely present in a conversation.
Our preference for eye contact starts early. Infants have been shown to prefer looking at faces that look directly back at them. In adulthood, research shows that we’re more likely to remember somebody we’ve made direct eye contact with.
But let’s face it — sustained eye contact can feel a little awkward. Rest assured that this is less about engaging in a staring contest and more about ensuring your eyes are involved as you communicate.
When recording a video message, increase the size of your camera bubble so it’s easier to see your eyes (plus all of your nonverbal cues) and stick some googly eyes near your camera so you can focus your eye contact. Boost the production value of your message by cleaning up your background and using adequate lighting. Those are minor details that help you take center stage.
Do this in person:
Don’t let your eyes wander, and make eye contact with the person you’re speaking with.
Be mindful of not locking eyes (which can be a little off-putting). Three seconds of eye contact before briefly looking away is said to be the ideal.
Do this remotely:
Look at your camera to simulate in-person eye contact, rather than looking down, watching your own reflection, or, worst of all, scrolling through other browser windows.
3. Be mindful of your facial expressions and gestures. 😮 😀 🤨
Maybe you’ve seen it before — the subtle eye roll when a team member makes a suggestion or the almost-imperceptible head shake when somebody obviously disagrees.
Like it or not, you wear your emotions and your intentions all over your face. Skilled communicators need to manage their facial expressions, fidgeting, and other physical representations of their emotions in order to convey a clear message.
Do this in person:
Use positive expressions and gestures (smiles, raised eyebrows, nods, thumbs up, etc.) to demonstrate engagement and understanding.
As strange as it sounds, practice your neutral facial expression to confirm that it isn’t sending unintended messages. Look in the mirror or ask for feedback from a trusted colleague if you have to.
Watch your yawns! Even when they’re unintentional, they can suggest disinterest.
Do this remotely:
Most facial expressions and gestures — from a smile to a thumbs up — translate to video calls and video messages, so don’t be afraid to use them.
Sit a short distance away from your camera so that your gestures can be seen.
4. Pay close attention to your body posture. 🔎
How we carry ourselves says a lot about our moods, thoughts, and intentions (not to mention how we come across in first impressions), which means posture is another thing you need to be aware of when communicating.
When you slump in your chair and cross your arms, you’re more likely to be perceived as detached, disinterested, and conveying defensiveness. In contrast, when you sit up straight, relax your arms, and even lean forward slightly, you present yourself as far more attentive and aware of your personal space.
Think you need to tape a ruler to your back and sit up straight at all times? Not quite. Context matters here. There’s nothing wrong with a more relaxed position when having a casual conversation with a team member. But if you’re delivering an important presentation? Then you probably want to roll your shoulders back and lift your chin.
Do this in person:
Sit up tall in your chair rather than slouching or leaning back and putting your feet up.
Unfold your arms or unclasp your hands and opt for a more open body position.
Do this remotely:
The temptation to do that video call from your couch is real, but you’re better off finding a place where you can sit up straight with your feet on the ground. Bonus: That straight posture makes you more likely to think positive thoughts.
Rest your hands on the desk in front of you (except for when gesturing) rather than crossing your arms or resting your chin in your hand. Those can indicate boredom.
Related reading: How to Overcome Camera Anxiety — The Loom Blog
Say (and show) what you mean ✨
Forms of nonverbal communication and verbal communication are both important, but a single one can’t shoulder the burden of effective interactions on its own. It’s when they work together that successful communication truly takes shape.
Yet, too often, we aren’t mindful of our own nonverbal cues. We fail to recognize how these seemingly subtle and often inadvertent signals — from our facial expressions and gestures to our tone of voice and posture — can cause confusion or be incongruent with the meaning behind our words.
Not anymore! Acing nonverbal communication boosts understanding, keeps conversations flowing smoothly, and helps you not only say what you mean, but show it, too. Oh, and in case there’s any doubt: We’re saying that with a smile and an upbeat tone of voice. 😉
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Written by Kat Boogaard
Kat is a freelance writer focused on productivity, communication, and teamwork. Say hi on Twitter.