"Communicating Non-Verbally: Body Speak" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

Communicating Non-Verbally:  Body Speak

August 15th, 2012 - Every bit as important as speaking or listening is our non-verbal communication. Or as the legendary Mae West once said, “I speak two languages, English and body."

What we say and how seriously we listen are critical variables in persuasion. But so too is body language.

What your face conveys, how your body moves, your gestures, posture and general “look” convey as much as 93% of our interpersonal communication, according to the book The Power of Body Language by Tonya Reiman. It’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it and how you look.

Changes in verbal tone, intentional pauses, and seemingly minor changes towards or away from someone signal collaboration or confrontation, cooperation or competition. Picking up quickly and accurately on these clues is what is sometimes referred to as having a “gut sense” of a person or situation. This mechanism is the listening part of understanding body language.

The sending or broadcasting part of communication nonverbally is being able to connect using body language as a mechanism or tool for transferring information, knowledge, opinions, feelings, or points of view. Both the sending and receiving are necessary to transfer information or communication.

Think about our gut reactions to other people and events. We have all had the experience of enjoying a polished speaker in a large audience. Effective speakers pause at the opening moments of a talk to let the crowd examine, take measure, assess the credibility, and judge the legitimacy of the speaker before one word is uttered. As it turns out the worth of the speaker, measured one week after the speech was delivered, depends on the non-verbal communication and not the actual message (most of which cannot be remembered).

The keen insight and understanding of nonverbal signals is an honest and reliable source of communication. Our primate ancestors, in order to survive, depended upon their “gut” instincts to quickly and accurately differentiate between friend and foe. Language was developed much later in the evolutionary journey, so most early primates and many non-verbal animals today depend upon body language to know if they have a peaceful environment or should be prepared for battle.

Body language is our original and still very effective way of communication. Babies start with gestures and a well connected parent understands and responds. The equally perceptive baby responds by recognizing and embracing friendly faces while avoiding unfamiliar folks. Clearly, even before babies are able to articulate, they are able to make their needs known.

First impressions are formed within milliseconds of meeting someone for the first time. According to a Princeton study, we make our initial judgments about a person’s attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence and aggressiveness in under a second.

Years ago an experiment was designed to see how quickly competent human resource executives made a decision. The experiment used a desk with two hidden buttons. One button was “yes let’s hire” and the other “no let’s not.” The human resource executives were given a reasonable amount of time with the candidates to ask their best interview questions. The actual measure was not whether to hire, but rather how quickly the decision was made. As it turns out the decision was made within the first few minutes of the interview. The rest of the interview was spent confirming the initial impression. Once again, non-verbal communication dominated.

Body language is both conscious and unconscious. Examples of conscious body language include standing up straight, smiling, hand shaking or hugging, or raising your eyebrows as a sign of recognition. Unconscious body language includes making eye contact with someone you don’t know or turning towards someone you would like to engage. Moving away, distancing yourself, and crossing your limbs unconsciously all signal unconsciously that you don’t want to be involved.

The universality of body language has fascinated scientists, psychologists, anthropologists and primate researchers for centuries. Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals observed that specific emotions are visible on the face and body. Later researchers grouped facial expressions into seven themes—surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, and happiness. Different cultures and nationalities have various nuances in expression but the basics all start out the same.

Understanding these signals is part of empathy. Even though a consciously verbal message is being “sent,” the simultaneous non-verbal communication may negate the spoken one. Consider someone telling you she does admire another person, while at the same time her eyelids are fluttering or her eyes are rolling. (In our culture “eye rolling” is a sign of disrespect commonly overused by teenagers.)

Understanding these five immutable truths to body language will make you a better communicator.

#1 Body language is ubiquitous. We are always sending and receiving signals. Our face, posture, clothing, energy level all make a statement. Those around us are consciously or unconsciously sending us signals. An important part of emotional intelligence is empathy which, in turn, is based on reading body language.

#2 The environment matters greatly. What is appropriate at home is not the same as being at work or in a formal situation. At home, your teenagers can roll their eyes at each other—but not at school with a teacher.

#3 Body language is a set of signals that combine to make an impression. Just because someone is yawning doesn’t mean he bored. He could have slept poorly due to caring for a newborn, or observed someone else yawning in the room as yawns are mildly contagious. (Just thinking or mentioning yawning has a tendency to create a yawn.)

#4 What a person says and what he believes can be sometimes ascertained by a careful analysis of body language. Incongruence between word and body should make careful observers uncomfortable. Malcolm Gladwell, who is an advocate for going with gut instinct based on body language, discusses this behavioral mismatch extensively in his book Blink. Listening to the voice, watching the face, and observing changes in posture can all lead to either confirmation of truthfulness or suspicions of deceit?

#5 Brief flashes of emotions can betray inner feelings. This is communication on a primal level. Of course, the observer has to be attuned and alert. The sender of such intimate information may or may not know she is transmitting innermost thoughts.

How well do you speak both languages—English and body? Understanding body language, using these skills to communicate more accurately, and staying alert to changes can lead you to a richer personal and professional life.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.