In business, both verbal and nonverbal communication are important. Many people are visual learners and in fact focus on what they see when spoken to. If part of your leadership techniques include focus on your nonverbal communications you are on the right track.
Given the role that nonverbals play in communicating, there is a real need for self-awareness. To facilitate understanding and management of each parts of communication, it is useful to look at the three categories: Paralanguage, Kinesics, and Proxemics.
Paralanguage is the vocal or tonal quality and pitch as well as the speed and emphasis of our words. It plays a role in face-to-face communication and in telecommunication. Paralanguage is the “how” of our speaking and can be broken down into several areas:
- Increasing loudness or softness and high or low pitch can designate a question or convey emotion.
- Timing variation and changes in pitch can provide emphasize or convey meaning.
- Vocal constriction versus openness can imply tension or emotion.
- Drawling or clipping is evident in various accents, where someone either drags out certain syllables or skips letters entirely.
- Emotion reflects how the speaker’s feelings affects the delivery. Crying versus laughing while speaking will almost always convey a different meaning.[i]
Kinesics is the study of body language. Whether speakers are aware of it or not, their bodies communicate messages. The ability both to manage these messages as a speaker as well as to understand them as a listener is invaluable in business. Effective speaking engages the emotions of the audience, and the use of body language is a powerful aspect of that communication.
A story told about President Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrates his belief in nonverbal communication. One evening he decided to have some fun while greeting people. Many of them said, “Good evening, Mr. President, and how are you?” to which he responded with a warm smile, “I’m fine, thank you, I murdered my mother-in-law.” Not one person reacted to his comment. It is possible that no one even heard it because his body language was so contradictory to his statement. Because body language is typically unconscious, it is believed to be the most genuine form of communication.
Because body language is based on feelings, it is valuable to read the recipient’s body language when communicating. More important, it is possible to leverage the use of body language as well as other nonverbals to enhance the delivery of a message. A list of the most common body actions that can lead to intended or unintended impressions follows.
- Erect posture. Power, confidence, control
- Two people sitting in similar positions. Harmony, agreement
- Leaning forward. Interest in other, confidence
- Open hands. Sincerity, openness
- Crossed arms. Defense, closed
- Head tilting toward the speaker. Agreement or interest
- Smile. Pleasure, compassion, trust, desire for connection[ii]
There are certainly exceptions to this list, particularly when considering other cultures. It is best to consider body language in combination with cultural behaviors before drawing conclusions.
The use of the hands to guide the eyes is one of the most powerful body language techniques to convey or guide attention.
Proxemics relates to the space in which we operate and its effect on our level of comfort. [iii] There are two general aspects to proxemics:
1. Physical territory, such as the orientation or characteristics of furniture or surroundings, can have an effect on our comfort. For example, a desk facing a window versus a dingy wall can affect a worker’s mood. Or a presentation in a poorly lit room might change the experience of the audience.
2. Personal territory reflects our comfort level in proximity to others. Depending on the level of intimacy, there are basic ranges for each level.
a. Public space. The distance maintained between an audience and a speaker is generally 12 to 25 feet..
b. Social space. The distance between business associates in communication or strangers in public settings is 4 to 10 feet.
c. Personal space. The distance between close friends or family members, or between strangers waiting in line, is 2 to 4 feet.
Cultural differences can lead to variations in these distances. Becoming familiar and respecting these cultural differences will improve cross-cultural relations and build connection. Distances can also vary by gender, age, and personal preferences. Reading body language and observing reactions are the best way to determine the best distances.
[i] “What Is Paralanguage?” www.work911.com/communication/nonverbparalanguage.htm.
[ii] Patricia Ball, “Watch What You Don’t Say,” www.speaking.com/articles_html/PatriciaBall,CSP,CPAE_592.html.
[iii] Mike Sheppard, “Proxemics,” www.cs.unm.edu/~sheppard/proxemics.htm.