Leveraging your nonverbal communication at work

Written by: Alison Robins
Published on April 17, 2018 | Reading time: 12m

As a manager, the success of your role is founded on building strong and trustworthy relationships with your colleagues and employees. The key to getting this right is being aware that the way you communicate in the workplace directly impacts the quality of relationships you form. And, that it’s not what you say, but how you say it that matters.

First thing’s first: Did you know that we are always communicating, even when we’re not using or words?

This wordless language is called nonverbal communication, and it accounts for a heaping 60-75% of our communication. Meaning, it’s not the carefully selected words you chose to use, but the nonverbal cues you give off that matter most.

Nonverbal communication, what many call the second conversation, majorly influences how we’re perceived, respected and trusted. The tricky part is that we’re not always aware of the nonverbal cues we’re giving off. Not to worry – we’re going to help you get a good handle on it by improving your Self-Awareness as a leader and communicator.

Building up this essential domain of your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is key. Of the five domains of EQ (listed below), self awareness is arguably at the base of it all. Once you understand yourself and your emotions, you’ll have an easier time understanding others. This will help you nurture relationships founded in trust, so you can get the most devotion and productivity out of your team.

5 domains of emotional intelligence and their description: Social Skills, Motivation, Self-Awareness, Empathy, and Self-Regulation

What nonverbal communication is and why it matters

Nonverbal communication is a way of communicating feelings or information without using words. It works hand-in-hand with verbal communication to create our language system, but there are significant differences between the two.

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”

Peter F. Drucker.

Nonverbal communication includes:

  • Body language (posture, gestures, movements)
  • Eye contact
  • Tone and octave of your voice
  • The distance or space between people
  • Use of touch
  • Appearance (colours, symbols, etc)

These unspoken signals matter because they are 12-13 times more powerful than our words. This means that as your colleagues and employees listen to you speak, your gestures, voice intonations, posture and eye contact are actually speaking louder.

People subconsciously use your nonverbal cues as a roadmap to discover your intention and credibility and then form automatic conclusions about you. If you get nonverbal communication right, people will walk away feeling positive without even knowing why. It will help you earn respect, form relationships, and establish your authority in the workplace.

The tough part is that we have so little control over our nonverbal language because it happens for the most part unconsciously. This is because historically, humans used nonverbal communication before language was ever invented and biologically, nonverbal is the first form of language we use to express our needs. It comes naturally to us, whereas language needs to be learned.

Have you ever caught yourself mid conversation thinking “oh, I should uncross my arms to be more open” Or “stop scanning the room and make eye contact!” These are good reflexes, but there’s so much more to it. First, let’s understand how nonverbal communication works.

Nonverbal communication functions on 3 key levels:

1. Reinforces verbal communication

Nonverbal cues and gestures can complement or accent our verbal messages.

For example, a gesture such as banging a fist on your desk while yelling underlines the emotion of anger. On a more positive note, you can use your hands while explaining a project or presenting a pitch to demonstrate your enthusiasm. Using your hands makes your words more memorable.

Example of nonverbal communication reinforcing verbal communication. Manager banging on his desk

2. Substitutes verbal communication

Nonverbal cues can also stand in for a verbal message.

We don’t always need to speak to say something. The expression “a picture is worth a thousand words” more or less sums it up. Facial expressions are universal. We can read feelings on a face – so much so that we can even detect when a smile is “fake”. We can perceive authenticity, which is why it’s so important for you as a manager to be self-aware of the signals you emit. If your people see you as inauthentic, it will be difficult to get them to move in the direction you want them to.

With self-awareness, you’ll also be able to understand and read others’ nonverbal messaging – the story behind the story – which is helpful in building and maintaining authentic relationships.

Facial Expressions in Nonverbal Communication. Anger, Happiness, Surprise, Disgust, Sadness, and Fear.

Tip: Smile in the morning when you walk by people in the office. You may not have time for a chit chat but letting people know you’re happy to be at work with them will create a contagion of positivity and help form a positive impression without ever saying a word.

3. Contradicts verbal communication

Most importantly, our nonverbal cues can contradict our verbal messages.

This is the one that managers need to pay particular attention to at work because contradictory communication breeds distrust and leads your employees to question your credibility.

No one likes mixed messages, especially from a leader.

It’s the great responsibility of a leader to express themselves clearly and impart their intended message with coherence. Saying one thing and doing another is a big leadership faux pas that we want to help you avoid.

As HBR tells us:

“If your spoken message and your body language are mismatched, audiences will respond to the nonverbal message every time.”

Let’s look at a real-life example: You want to encourage your team to get on board with a change in the company. To do this, you need to express your own excitement about it. While your words hit the nail on the head, your arms are crossed, your voice is low and you’re resting back in your chair like it’s naptime. The outcome is that your team won’t be on board with the change, and they’ll perceive your mixed message as a sign of untrustworthiness.

Manager having a nonverbal cue contradicting its verbal message.

Takeaway Tip: The first step to getting nonverbal right is learning to manage stress. When we’re stressed, our bodies become the outward image of our inward emotions, which affects your body language and the message you (inadvertently) give off. This article on managing stress might help.

Where nonverbal communication can go wrong

Nonverbal communication is powerful, for better or for worse.

Here’s how it can backfire:

False Impressions: You can give off impressions without intending to. For example, if an employee is resting his face in the palm of his hand during a meeting he’ll be showing that he’s bored, when in reality he might be thinking the complete opposite. Maybe he’s tired, or maybe that position helps him focus. It goes to show how quickly we make assumptions, and that it’s important to dig deeper than what we see. Don’t always believe everything you think.

Credibility Crusher: If your nonverbal language tells a different story than your spoken language – the “mixed-message” dilemma – people might question your credibility. For example, if you’re giving positive feedback to an employee but you relay the good news with a low, monotone voice – they likely won’t believe your words, and may lose confidence in you.

When you take the time to match your nonverbal messaging to your words when giving positive feedback you’ll see wonderful results. To deliver good news and have it perceived as genuine, sit forward when you speak and smile! If employees accept that your praise as sincere, they’ll feel more encouraged to keep up the good work.

Don’t worry – we’ll shed light on each type of nonverbal communication so you can set yourself up for success with every personal encounter.

The secret ingredient to nonverbal communication

Can you guess? It’s Self-Awareness; the first, foundational domain of Emotional Intelligence.

As a leader, your people skills or EQ have a much greater bearing on your success than your hard skills (IQ) because at the end of the day your job is about people – the heart of every organization.

The first step is understanding self. We’d all like to think that we have a solid grasp on our emotions, how we handle them and how they affect others, but in reality being self-aware is no easy task. It is, however, an important one, and very luckily, one that can be learned.

Improving Self-Awareness to improve your nonverbal communication.

According to Harvard University

The core of high [Emotional Intelligence] is self-awareness: if you don’t understand your own motivations and behaviors, it’s nearly impossible to develop an understanding of others.

If you want to send the right nonverbal message, you need to first be aware of your emotions and understand how they impact you – inside and out. For example, we know that our internal stress affects our external body language. If we learn to be aware of how we’re feeling and what triggers our stress, we can better control it – and the way our body reacts.

Daniel Goleman – the godfather of Emotional Intelligence – believes that tuning into the signals of our body is the most practical ways to build self-awareness.

When emotions are activated, they are accompanied by bodily changes. There may be changes in breathing rate, in muscle tension, in heart rate. Emotional Self-Awareness in part is the awareness of one’s own body.

In order to start building your self-awareness, Goleman suggests to “check in with your sensory experience”. Pay attention to how your emotions affect you on a physiological level, so you can control your body language.

Tip: Ask yourself questions like: What triggers you? What situations make you feel certain emotions? Does your body language change with these feelings? Keep track of these emotions in a daily journal and then search for patterns. Understanding is the first step to improving.

The pros of building your self-awareness:

  1. You’ll be able to send nonverbal signals that match your verbal ones, resulting in consistency and therefore trust. This is the ideal for all leaders.
  2. You’ll learn to read employees by their nonverbal messages and will better understand their feelings and needs. For example, you’ll learn that answers like
    “It’s ok – I’m not upset” when it comes to employee conflict, or negative feedback, can use a bit more probing and attention.

4 Nonverbal communication tips for managers

1. Watch your body language (Gesture, Posture, Movements)

Your body language conveys emotional meaning to your audience. It tells the receiver whether you’re open or closed to them and their thoughts. If you want to build a positive, trusting relationship with your colleagues and employees, your body language needs to be the visual cue for that.

5 Body language tips to earn trust:

  1. Lean in when you speak and when listening to show engagement.
  2. Nod your head to show that you’re listening.
  3. Sit up straight! A slumped posture demonstrates disinterest.
  4. Keep your arms uncrossed, your legs unfolded and your torso facing forward to show that you’re open.
  5. Stand in a wide position, about shoulder width apart to demonstrate confidence.

Takeaway Tip: “Mirroring” is a technique you can use to connect with your employees. It means copying their body language to empathize and understand how they’re feeling in the situation, so you can adapt your messaging.

2. Maintain eye contact

“The eyes are the window to the soul” – cheesy, yes. But true. We can make sense of people’s emotions through their eye contact (or lack therefore). Maintaining eye contact during conversations with colleagues or employees will help you build trust and respect. It lets them know that you are listening, and that you care. It also demonstrates confidence in what you are saying.

It sounds simple enough, but we can get easily distracted and our gaze can wander, so putting your best effort into maintaining eye contact is a good start to building a good relationship.

3. Be mindful of your voice (Tone, Octave, Pitch, Intonations)

Here’s a fun tidbit: Politicians are trained on their tone of voice to ensure that they give off the right message to their audience.

As explained in this article on nonverbal communication tips:

Your tone of voice can convey a wealth of information, ranging from enthusiasm to disinterest to anger. Start noticing how your tone of voice affects how others respond to you and try using tone of voice to emphasize ideas that you want to communicate. For example, if you want to show genuine interest in something, express your enthusiasm by using an animated tone of voice.

Tip: Avoid the question inflection! When your voice goes up at the end of a statement (as if you’re asking a question) it appears as though you are questioning yourself, which will make you look less assured as a leader.

4. Keep your hands where we can see ‘Em

Believe it or not, the first thing people see when they look at you is not your face, it’s your hands. Our hands reveal a lot about us. Exposed hands, for example, are a sign of honesty, while hidden hands can give off the impression that you have something to hide or that you’re withholding information. In your day-to-day work life scenarios, whether it be giving feedback to an employee or presenting a new business strategy to your team – to get the buy-in and trust that you want, it’s best to leave your hands where they can see them.

The power to earn trust is in the palm of your hands.

HBR offers great tips for getting hand gestures right. Each is valuable depending on the situation and message you want to give off.

  1. Pretend you’re holding a basketball: This indicates confidence and control.
  2. Don’t fidget: Keep your hands in a relaxed and steady pyramid.
  3. Expose your palms: It’s a sure sign of trustworthiness, openness and honesty.
  4. Keep palms facing down: This demonstrates strength and assertiveness.
Four hand gestures to help nonverbal communication; Basketball hand pose to show confidence. Pyramid hand pose to show a relaxed state. Palms up while speaking to show trustworthiness. Palms down while speaking to show strength

Nonverbal communication may not make or break your leadership, but taking the time to become more self-aware of your emotions and body language will certainly help you build better relationships at work. We hope the tips in this post are helpful! Start with one and see where it takes you.

Before you go..

Learn the five skills that will help you increase employee motivation on your team.

Cover - Emotional Intelligence course

Don’t forget to check out our other articles pertaining to the Domains of Emotional Intelligence!

  1. Social SkillsGuide to dealing with employee conflict at work
  2. MotivationHow to effectively increase employee motivation
  3. EmpathyHow to handle poor employee performance at work
  4. Self-RegulationWhat managers can do to connect with their employees

Any other nonverbal communication tips to share? Leave them in the comments below!