Non-Verbal Communication can be mightier than your words; this is especially true in-person. Your words are important, but your body language and “para-language” may transmit a louder message.
Studies have shown that people can “size up” another person in as little as three to four seconds. This judgment is a basic mammalian response that uses all our senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. In addition, we call upon our past experiences with others to help us sort out friend from foe. If we had a bad experience with a tall, bald man once before, we might be wary of others who fit that description.
Body language may make up to 55% of communication. This includes posture, facial expressions such as smiling or frowning, hand and arm movements, and the tilt of your head. A hand moved in front of your mouth can indicate that you uncomfortable or don’t agree with the other party. Arms crossed can be sign of aggression or disagreement.
Akin to body language is the amount of space you maintain between yourself and others; while this space can be cultural and learned, it can also be an indicator of someone who is aggressive or unskilled socially. Standing too close to another person can make others very uncomfortable in western cultures, while in Middle Eastern cultures standing nose to nose is considered polite and a sign of friendship or trust.
Para-language is the use of intonation, sighs, and pauses in your speech; studies have shown that para-language accounts for 38% of communication. Once again culture may play a big role in use of para-language. For example, Japanese business people will use long pauses in meetings to reflect upon important points. These pauses show respect and wisdom; these pauses also allow for time to think and help you avoid saying something stupid. Para-language can be heard on the phone such as a sigh or an inflection of voice; our listening for these signals is more acute when on the phone. In-person you can actually see a sigh which involves a deep breath and its release.
Our words may say one thing while our body language and para-language may say another. For example, on a job interview you may try to say the right things while your nervous hands and sweaty brow may communicate another. The interviewer will know that you are nervous despite your confident words.
Another example is the behavior of a liar. Typically someone who is lying is stiff and uses few arm and hand movements. They avoid eye contact and they will turn away or turn sideways. Sometimes they unconsciously put things between you and them such as a stack of magazines or some other object to hide behind.
For business people the best advice may be to “be yourself”, since you cannot hide behind words.
According to Business Week Online 2/16/07
“Take it from the scientists. Thirty-seven years ago, the late anthropologist and professor of communications Ray L. Birdwhistell demonstrated that less than 35% of the message in a conversation is conveyed by spoken words—the other 65% is communicated with facial expressions and body language. Says Matthew Lombard, a professor at Temple University and president of the International Society for Presence Research: “Without the visual, you miss most of the nonverbal cues.”
John Bradley Jackson
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