February 19 2019


Human Capital and Management

Non-verbal communication: myths and realities

Can non-verbal communication really be considered a science?

In essence, non-verbal communication cannot be considered a true science by definition. Rather, it is a constant interpretation of what we see in terms of posture, gestures and facial expressions.

How can decoding non-verbal language serve us in a professional environment?

Decoding non-verbal language can help you become a better communicator and help you develop empathy. In fact, decoding non-verbal language is something that we all do quite naturally. It begins when we are children, when we are able to analyze our mother’s facial expression to determine what kind of mood she is in. At the core, it is more a sort of intuition or feeling.

The important thing is to learn how to validate this intuition or feeling by asking the right questions. For example, you might ask someone the following: “I noticed that you keep looking at your watch. Are you worried about the time for some reason?”—this is better than being on the defensive and assuming that the other person is not interested in the conversation.

Non-verbal language is a key component of communication. That’s why it’s so important to be able to interpret the behaviour of the person you are talking to. Doing so can lead to better communication that is franker and more honest and, as a result, more truthful.

Can we really trust our intuition?

According to Malcolm Gladwell (in his book entitled Blink), intuition is something we can rely on, at least most of the time. However, we have to keep in mind that we are all somewhat biased and have preconceived notions that can taint our perception of reality.

Can we improve how others perceive us by modifying or controlling our non-verbal language?

There are certain things we will never be able to control—for example, reddening of the cheeks or dilating pupils.

At the same time, if you are consciously able to adopt the posture you wish to project, this can influence your frame of mind and help you be more confident.

Your brain is made up of two parts: one that reacts spontaneously (the primitive part of the brain) and momentarily lets your emotion show on your face, and another part that seeks to hide your emotions. Needless to say, these two parts of your brain are often at odds with each other.

What are signals of non-verbal communication and how can we interpret these signals?

These signals include facial expressions that translate the universal emotions of human beings: joy, sadness, anger, sorrow, contempt, disgust and surprise.

Non-verbal language also includes how the body is positioned with regards to its surroundings and other people, and gestures.

We tend to want non-verbal language to simply involve the analysis of a person’s behaviour, but it is important to consider how a person moves (gestures, facial expressions, posture) before, after and during different parts of a conversation, and how strong these movements are.

For example, if a person’s arms are crossed, it does not necessarily mean that he is closed off. He may very well be thinking and so he is turning within himself to focus.

Interpreting non-verbal language is not always easy. However, it is possible to learn how to observe others in order to become a better communicator.

What is mirroring?

Mirroring is something that people do quite naturally. When you are in a romantic relationship with someone, for example, it is not unusual to adopt the other person’s expressions.

When someone dislikes another person, they unconsciously seek to disengage from communication by breaking the connection, the bond of trust and adopting an asynchronous position with the other person. They might completely disconnect and not pay attention to their own behaviour or, on the flip side, they may also seek to take complete control of their non-verbal communication.

Does the manner in which a person dresses play a role in non-verbal communication?

A person’s style of dress indeed plays a role in the professional world. First and foremost, your body and style of dress have an impact on how others perceive you since they are the first things they see.

One final tip…

Never assume! Always validate your impressions with the person you are talking to by asking questions. Of course, you have to be able to consciously observe the non-verbal language of others and make reference to a verifiable action in order to validate what you are thinking. The example we mentioned earlier reflects this idea—“I noticed that you keep looking at your watch. Are you worried about the time for some reason?”—since it refers to a verifiable action.

It goes without saying that you won’t always be able to do this on the spot. You will need to adapt based on context to ensure that you don’t make anyone uncomfortable (this is especially true if you are part of a group). If someone is exhibiting behaviour that is problematic and has had a negative reaction that impacted the group, you should point out his behaviour both while you are in the group and in private.

Take the Using Non-Verbal Communication for Communicating More Effectively (CH196) course to learn how to interpret non-verbal behaviour and improve communication through observation.

Pierre Lescarbeau boasts over 25 years’ experience in corporate training, coaching and management. He has trained over 10,000 people in various areas of specialty. Pierre holds a diploma in Neuro-linguistic Programming from the Neuro-linguistic Programming University in California (NLPU). He also studied management at both McGill and Concordia. Trained in communications, leadership and coaching, he also studied management at both McGill and Concordia. Recognized for his dynamic personality, his finely honed communication skills and his ability to turn abstract ideas into easy-to-grasp concepts, Pierre has a highly interactive training style through which he vividly shares his passion for human nature as well as inspiration, integrity and self-awareness.