By Skye Gentile
"Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." An entire industry of self-help books, therapists, and 12-step programs, might argue to the contrary. However, it does raise interesting questions regarding the power of nonverbal communication. The reality is, the majority of your communication with others is nonverbal. Your nonverbal communication can support the verbal message, highlight aspects of the verbal message, or frankly contradict the verbal message (in which case people tend to believe the nonverbal message over the verbal message).
Consider the following scenario:
Your alarm clock goes off at some ungodly hour that clearly suggests one would not naturally 'wake up' without that technology. You meander to the kitchen and feel your way to the most important button on the coffee maker. After willing the blend to magically turn from bean and water to a strong cup of dark goodness, you set off to make yourself presentable. You are not consciously thinking about how the choice in your clothing sends messages to others about your confidence level, need for being comfortable, or that you are thinking about asking someone out on a date that day. Maybe before you leave the house, you check and respond to email, listen to voicemail, and possibly make 'choice decisions' about the music you want to listen to on your way to work. Once you get in the office, you sense that Chris might be irritated with you (you shrug it off). You continue the path towards your desk, and are certain that Jennifer snubbed you but cannot exactly prove it--you persist towards your space. Once in the office, you open your email once again and reread the message you "replied to all" on and carefully check the emoticons you used to soften the message of shear irritation you felt at the lack of progress your most important project is receiving by your counter-parts. Hmmm, time for a face-to-face intervention.
Without realizing it-you have sent and received a multitude of messages to many people without "Saying" a word to anyone. What you wear, how you respond to your fellow drivers on the road, email exchanges, facial gestures, eye contact, and whether or not you acknowledge someone on your way into the office--speak volumes and leave room for misinterpretation of your behavior by every single person that you crossed paths with. So now for the questions...Are you sending the messages (nonverbally) that you want to send? When someone is engaged in a conversation with you, are you nonverbally showing him or her that you are listening? How much leeway for mixed interpretations of your behavior are you giving others?
Let us take three examples from your seemingly innocuous entrance into the office. What you chose to wear today supports your intention to ask someone out for the first time—you look extra dapper. Your hand gesture to the driver that cut you off on the 5 freeway highlighted your displeasure with their entry into your lane. Lastly, the devilish emoticon you sent along with the message to your team contradicted the real message expressing your dislike with the progress of the project. With the last one—remember if there is a discrepancy between the verbal message and the nonverbal—folks buy the nonverbal. Thus, all are aware of the source of your unhappiness and responded with a chilly reception upon your arrival into the office.
There are some basic principles for nonverbal communication that you can easily incorporate into your repertoire of responding, to help minimize misunderstanding and encourage supportive communication. Try to match your nonverbal communication with the verbal message you send. Use eye contact appropriately; show others you are listening by asking questions and paraphrasing back what you think you heard. Be clear with your messages—if you are unhappy about the progress of the project—separate the individual from the behavior and solicit input from the team about how to improve, get back on track, or make mid-stream adjustments (problem solve versus complain).
Understanding the power of nonverbal communication can help you bring into harmony your verbal words, with the nonverbal message you are sending. We cannot control the way in which others perceive our behavior, but we can help minimize misunderstanding. Moreover, when in doubt, we can check whether we are sending the message we intended to send—and if not—help rectify the situation. Lastly, with your newfound understanding of the power of nonverbal, you can intuit the nonverbal cues of others and speak more truthfully about what might be going, versus superficially. This will help strengthen your relationships by enabling others to feel heard, listened to, and understood. After all, is that not what we all long for--feeling heard and somewhat understood?
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