The spoken word is an important form of communication, however, it can be very limiting. Nonverbal communication actually tells a much more accurate story of what an individual is trying to convey. A study conducted by UCLA states that 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. This is critical especially in today’s world because we rely on texting and e-mail more and do not get enough daily practice to be sensitive to our nonverbal messages. Younger generations are especially prone to be misunderstood by older managers in the workforce and need to keep in mind that “actions speak louder than words.”
There are several forms of nonverbal communication that need to be addressed to be an effective communicator – at home, at work, in social settings, etc. One must understand that communication is multi-faceted and that people communicate on many levels. Such behaviors as facial expressions, inflections in one’s voice, hand gestures, body movement, touch, personal space and even dress are forms of communication.
Facial expressions can best be described by the quote “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The way a person wrinkles their forehead, smiles or frowns, etc. can be the opposite of what the speaker is saying. Good eye contact is advantageous because it conveys interest and credibility; this is very true when a company is interviewing a candidate or a leader is meeting with their staff.
As an executive coach and a recruiter, most of my interaction is by telephone. Within a few minutes, it is very easy to determine the type of person I am speaking with – energetic, sorrowful, happy, intense, laid back or even impartial. The candidate and the interviewer must be careful to use a range of inflection in their voice as well as being aware of pitch and rhythm. For example, a person who speaks in monotones can be perceived as dull or boring. If a person is talking on the phone and is smiling, it can be felt by the listener. Of course, the same holds true for in person communication.
Hand gestures and body movement can communicate happiness, tension and other types of feelings. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a cable television show. I tend to talk a lot with my hands when I am nervous and was very self conscious about it. I kept my hands in my lap through the entire half hour show. When I viewed the show later, I realized I came across as stiff and my body language contradicted in some ways the talk I was trying to deliver. If one is trying to show interest, be cognizant of the position of your body in the chair (shoulders should be square to the other person), lean a bit forward and when standing, stand erect but not rigid.
Touch and personal space can be useful forms of communication but they can also be the most misunderstood. When meeting someone, it is customary in our country to greet the person with a handshake. Both people should extend their entire hand when shaking but it is surprising how many people (especially women) use only their fingers; the hand has many sensory endings and it is one of the only times a person has physical contact with another human being. In addition, personal space must be carefully watched; different cultures can place greater emphasis on how much space should be between two people. Insecure people or people who are trying to avoid confrontation tend to prefer greater space too.
A less realized form of communication is dress. Since many companies no longer require suits, employees can express their individuality and “the message of who they are” through the types of clothes and accessories they wear. Unfortunately, too many times some employees take this too far and are thus viewed as less serious about their work. Candidates for job interviews should ask the recruiter what is the appropriate attire and make sure the clothes fit properly. One candidate I had wore a skirt that was too tight and kept standing up in the interview to pull it down!
Although most articles on nonverbal communications do not address this area, it needs to be discussed – empathic listening. Stephen Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” states that most people do not listen to truly understand the speaker but listen with the intent to reply. How many times did you have in your head what you wanted to say so that you missed what the other person was saying? According to Covey, there are four levels of listening – ignoring, pretending, selective listening and empathic listening (the type of listening where one is truly making an effort to understand the speaker). By choosing the latter, a better dialogue is achieved and both parties will have a higher level of sensitivity toward the other person and thus will be heard.
Effective communication needs to be a constant area of practice regardless of the setting. Even business leaders in Fortune 500 companies are working with executive coaches to improve the messages they relay to their organization. They recognize that verbal, written and nonverbal communication need to be in sync in order to convey a consistent message. At home, parents need to work with their children on nonverbal communication because today too many college students lack the skills to make a good impression to employers as well as other important contacts they may meet.
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