Non-verbal communication skills always fall under the radar when discussing the best way to convey a message. But as Professor Mark Frank explains in his bookReading People, many professionals use non-verbal behaviour as an active and important part of their professional work.
Your body language, tone of voice, and even how you dress may express your intentions, needs, and emotions better than words can. After all, according to international non-verbal communication and human behaviour expert Patti Wood in her bookSNAP:Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma, people can exchange up to 10,000 cues in less than a minute.
Research by Albert Mehrabian, communications expert and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, also reveals that spoken words only comprise 7% of your intended message. Meanwhile, 38% comes from tone and volume, while 55% is from body language.
Non-verbal communication is all the more important in Singapore. According to Culture Atlas, the county's culture of politeness makes speech more ambiguous and indirect. Instead, Singaporeans use non-verbal cues to navigate the conversation, paying attention to posture, expression, and tone of voice to catch the meaning between the words.
Non-verbal cues and behaviour also change based on social contexts. For example, art auctions are usually quiet, with potential buyers discreetly raising their bidding cards. Meanwhile, haggling in a public market is expectedly loud and dramatic. Recognise that “appropriate” non-verbal cues are based on the social norms of a specific situation.
This seemingly covert behaviour is part of how you present yourself, even in the workplace. Non-verbal communication skills can help you improve your professional relationships, which affect productivity as much as the work culture.
These abilities are even more essential in remote and hybrid work set-ups, where many discussions occur online and physical communication feels limited. A neck stretch or a raise in tone could be crucial in understanding a teammate or boss.
So to help you achieve your career goals in 2023, learn about non-verbal communication skills and how to use them effectively – especially in the workplace.
Non-verbal communication refers to the exchange of information through non-verbal means. Typically, you perform these actions subconsciously, revealing your emotional state, such as when you speak rapidly when nervous. But you can do them intentionally, too, such as when women put on their favourite heels to feel more empowered.
Here are seven types of non-verbal communication you may not realise affect your interactions:
These things may seem inconsequential, but when you use them properly, they can help you improve your relationships in the workplace (perhaps enough to win your boss over ?) and enhance your career prospects.
Imagine a conversation without gestures, expressions, pitch, or even tempo. You'd probably understand the message literally, but you wouldn't know if the other person is excited, angry, or lukewarm. Your emotional state influences how you communicate – and, in turn, affects how others communicate with you. Non-verbal cues add colour, depth, and impact to what you're conveying.
In the workspace, these behaviours play a role beyond letting your colleagues know if you're satisfied or disappointed. Mehrabian's Communication Theory explains that learning the difference between words and meaning is vital for effective communication and connection. So, whether you are leading a brainstorm, mentoring a coworker, or working a networking event, you can develop awareness and use non-verbal communication skills to build professional relationships that could help you in the long run and lead to professional development.
Non-verbal communication skills help you emphasise, reinforce, and support your verbal messages.
Non-verbal cues help you gauge the moods or sentiments of other people. Someone’s refusal to look at you during a conversation may be a sign of insincerity or disrespect. A simple pause before an answer may imply that your colleague gave enough thought and consideration to their response.
These cues can also help project a certain impression. For example, a presenter will look more confident and authoritative with the proper posture, hand gestures, and tone of voice.
Facial expressions make up the majority of your non-verbal cues. While cultural factors can influence the meaning of certain gestures, some mannerisms and reactions are universal. You can usually identify emotions through someone's face, regardless of age, race, or culture.
Do you see a furrow in your boss' brow or a wrinkle on their nose? It might be their way of conveying dismay. Are your client's eyes glazing over? They might not be listening to your presentation.
Movements, gestures, and postures can say a lot about a person. Body language can influence how people perceive you. A straight back may show authority and confidence, while being hunched over may make you seem troubled.
Because certain gestures may be greatly influenced by culture, however, don't forget that adding context is essential to any communication skill. For instance, you may find pointing with an index finger rude, so you use your thumb. However, other cultures may find that vague and dismissive. Another example is how Indians say yes by tilting their head from side to side instead of nodding, which is the convention in many countries.
Maintaining eye contact is a necessary component of any conversation. Not only does it pinpoint who you are talking to, but it also shows how much attention you are giving them. This action may even project confidence as you talk.
However, holding eye contact for too long may be seen as defiance or a challenge, especially when talking to your elders or superiors. Other cultures – such as Muslim Malays and some Hindu sects – may also see it as impolite.
Paralanguage is a form of non-verbal communication involving variations of sounds like tone, pitch, speed, hesitation noises, or modulation. These subtle changes give your voice nuances.
Managinghowyou say words can better convey your meaning and intention. Do you notice how, when you stress a word in the conversation, you call more attention to that word? Hesitating or pausing mid-sentence, meanwhile, might make you seem indecisive or nervous.
Yes, personal space is an aspect of non-verbal communication. Be more aware of the boundaries of the people you interact with. Something as simple as being on time for a meeting shows that you respect a person’s time and effort.
Also, be considerate of the different social dynamics in your life. How you act around your friends should differ from how you treat your boss. While you can probably slap a friend on the back to congratulate them on a promotion, you can't do that to your line manager when you win a client pitch.
Always be conscious of the physical and social contexts you’re in.
Touch can communicate meanings beyond words. For example, a firm handshake is a staple of business etiquette, but patting a person's head may be condescending. Awareness of the meanings and ways of communicating via touch can enhance your relationships.
But like personal space, touch can express different meanings across cultures. A seemingly innocent greeting might be inappropriate for a different culture. If you’re unsure, ask about someone’s boundaries instead of carelessly violating them.
How you look and dress can greatly influence someone's perception of you. After all, before they can get to know you, their first impression is based on how you present yourself. It shows your level of attention and the effort you put into the interaction. Work-appropriate attire also makes you more approachable. Plus, who doesn’t like a person who practises good grooming?
That said, different contexts require different dress codes. Board shorts might be great for the beach, but don’t expect to be taken seriously if you wear them in your workplace (yes, even in one of those casual office set-ups). Find out if certain places or events have a dress code, and follow it. It’s a sign of respect for the people around you and the environment you’re in.
Non-verbal communication is usually done subconsciously, so developing emotional awareness is essential. According to Kudesia and Elfenbein’s study, “The skill to recognise emotions through non-verbal behaviour is an important one. Those high in this ability more accurately obtain information about the internal states of others, which leads to better decision-making and increased workplace effectiveness.”
Developing emotional awareness has to start with yourself. If you disconnect from your emotions, you are less likely to pick up on the non-verbal emotional cues of others. Thankfully, there are techniques and habits that you can slowly build on to raise your emotional intelligence.
Chronic stress can trigger toxic and negative thinking, which may impact your self-awareness and decision-making abilities.
One way to manage your stressors is to view them as a means to make you stronger. Bethany Kline, PhD, wrote in a study for Ohio State University: "Rephrase how [you] are thinking about the situation so that [you] are seeing it as an opportunity rather than as a threat."
Once you have your stressor under control, assess yourself and the people around you properly. The best way to do this is to ask yourself questions. Identify which emotions or situations cause the most negative reactions in you so you can then connect to your feelings and understand how they influence your thoughts and actions.
Building self-awareness will lead to better decision-making and crisis-management skills. Valerie Kalinlin’s research on self-control and self-awareness says that those with higher levels of situational and dispositional self-awareness were able to identify more obstacles within the assigned task, allowing them to react and strategise more efficiently.
By actively listening, you’re showing the other person that you’re making a conscious effort to participate in the conversation. Aside from developing mutual understanding, it also provides a space for problem-solving and conflict resolution.
Active listening also entails non-verbal cues to deepen the conversation. Your body language can signal how invested you are in the moment. Leaning in towards who’s talking implies interest, while a smile is a sign of encouragement. Adopting these non-verbal techniques will help you engage better.
To help you train your active-listening skills, learn about these four core principles from The United States Institute of Peace :
People often forget about non-verbal communication skills when asking for feedback. But as you improve yourself, you still need to make sure that what you’re doing is effective. So while working on your non-verbal communication skills, try to ask if what you’re projecting is in line with your intent. Ask specific questions like, “How was my tone during the presentation?” or “Was I moving my hands too much? Did it become distracting?”
Asking for comments from your superiors and peers is not easy, because it requires you to examine yourself beyond your biases. It understandably comes with the fear of engaging in difficult conversations. Many people end up avoiding feedback because of this fear, but giving and receiving notes are part of personal and professional growth.
A study of Singapore mid-level managers by Alex Lapshun and Gene E. Fusch shows that good leadership and feedback are intertwined. The research participants saw feedback as a critical mechanism for sustaining trust and shaping the team's performance. Constructive feedback helps keep everyone aligned with the organisation's goals, and fosters development among its members.
So don’t be afraid to include non-verbal communication skills when asking for feedback. It shows your boss that you’re paying attention to even the smallest details. You’ll also set a good precedent in your workplace culture. This article on asking for feedback from your superiors might further help you plan your approach.
According to a recent report on Singapore’s hiring trends, 52% of companies reported that their hiring plans are back to pre-pandemic levels. But more opportunities for those looking to develop their careers further, using helpful tools such as these, also mean more competition. Your non-verbal communication skills may help you stand out during the application process, especially during the interview.
Interviews are all about first impressions. Since you only have a few minutes to present yourself as the ideal candidate, each moment is vital. Non-verbal cues can set you up for success or failure. Practise some of these body language cues to assert yourself to the interviewer:
Don’t underestimate the value of a good outfit. Dress to impress by studying the dress code of the company to which you’re applying. If you’re unsure, your safest bet would be a smart-casual look.
You can also check your voice modulation and tone via JobStreet's Interview Practice Tool. Don't forget to rehearse your answers for common interview questions, such as about your strengths and weaknesses as well as what motivates you.
Some may assume that people are born great speakers, but great articulation and elocution skills are honed through practice. Just ask iconic businessman Warren Buffett, who once said, “Up until the age of 20, I was absolutely unable to speak in public [...] Just the thought of it made me physically ill.”
Despite this, he knew that if he wanted to make an impact, he needed to hone his communication skills. He famously considers his Dale Carnegie Diploma in Public Speaking his most important degree. According to Buffet, his journey to practising his communication skills “certainly had the biggest impact on my subsequent success.”
This isn’t an isolated case. Dr Radhika Kapur, in her study " Public Speaking Skills: Vital in the Personal and Professional Lives," claims that public speaking enhances career prospects, forms a reliable social circle, improves organisation and logistics, promotes community well-being, and improves your overall living conditions.
Imagine preparing for a client pitch. A great deck will fall short if you cannot explain its contents engagingly. Your potential clients have to believe inyou, not just what you’re selling. A straight back and good posture can exude authority and competence. Punctuating your words with appropriate gestures will help you pace your speech and breathing. Adopt the proper body language to build the necessary trust.
You can build on these even in online meetings. With platform limitations and varying stabilities of internet connection, clarity is even more paramount. Hesitation and stuttering will be amplified in these limited spaces. Being precise in your intonation and diction will go a long way in making an impactful presentation.
One way to improve your speaking skills is to observe and emulate people you admire as good public speakers. Dr Kapur suggests that you "observe the gestures, facial expressions, and overall personality traits of other individuals when they are speaking in public. This will enable [you] to be well-prepared.”
Conflict is a part of the human experience. According to an article byBusiness Times Singapore on successful family and open communication, “effective communication requires [you] to make a realistic assessment of [yourself] and of those with whom [you] are communicating. What are their beliefs and limitations? What do they value? What are their interests and priorities?”
These apply in the workplace, too. Growth isn’t in avoiding disputes, but in managing and resolving them. Non-verbal skills are crucial so these workplace conflicts don’t escalate.
Any healthy team would have varying ideas among its members. We come from different backgrounds and perspectives. But dialogue can evolve into arguments when opposing parties try to one-up each other. In this situation, non-verbal behaviours can intensify negative emotions.
Avoid condescending movements like frowns, scoffs, or eye rolls. Raising your voice will only shut down the conversation. Try to remain calm and steady your voice to foster an open dialogue and reduce tension. Acknowledge good ideas by nodding. Affirmative non-verbal behaviours allow you to navigate the situation better and find compromises for everyone.
Honing your non-verbal communication skills isn’t a one-off event. No certificate or diploma can say you are a body-language master. It is a lifelong endeavour in awareness, sensitivity, and empathy. Despite this effort, you can rest assured that these abilities can help you express yourself better, avoid conflict, demonstrate confidence, and show emotions.
After all, non-verbal communication skills allow you to engage in more meaningful interactions that will generally enhance your personal and professional life.