A Head-to-Toe Guide to Nonverbal Communication in the Workplace

Nonverbal communication in the workplace is a powerful force. Learn how to make sure you use it to send the messages you mean to.

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A Head-to-Toe Guide to NonVerbal Communication in the Workplace

Effective communication is essential to maximizing efficiency, creating strong team relationships, and helping initiatives progress productively. And a big part of that equation is the role of nonverbal communication in the workplace.

After all, communication goes beyond the spoken and written word. Nonverbal communication, often referred to as body language, is the way that people convey messages through their bodies. Understanding nonverbal communication is just as important in effective workplace communications as comprehending actual words.

Humans read situations with all their senses, not just their ears. Their eyes gather just as much information during a conversation or meeting.

Nonverbal communication has as big an impact on a company’s culture and work environment as verbal communication. Some nonverbal messages come from basic human emotions, while others are just habits that an individual has acquired. Let’s look at how nonverbal communication affects employee morale, and share some tips to create effective nonverbal interactions in the workplace.

Why does nonverbal communication matter?

Spoken words and body language often convey the same message, but sometimes they contradict each other. It’s often the nonverbal communication that provides the”real story” of how a person feels about an idea or situation. Accurately reading nonverbal cues and being able to form nonverbal connections make team members better communicators.

How does it affect employee morale?

When the nonverbal cues line up with a person’s words, those cues punctuate the point effectively. But when the messages are mixed, the person’s team members might feel that trust has been damaged. Team members might be able to read more from someone’s body language than that person realizes.

When a person’s nonverbal cues muddle the meaning of the words being spoken, especially when it’s a leader, confidence in roles and relationships is eroded. The classic example is someone whose posture and eyes all cry out “Worry! Doom!” while their words try to say that everything’s going to be fine.

When the nonverbal cues line up with a person’s words, those cues punctuate the point effectively. But when the messages are mixed, the person’s team members might feel that trust has been damaged.

Tips to improve nonverbal interactions in the workplace

Let’s look at some specific examples of communication in the workplace and methods that speakers can use to improve their deliveries.

It’s also important to remember that people have different mental and behavioral abilities, and that you shouldn’t discriminate against neurodiverse employees.

Tone of voice

The volume, inflection, and pitch of your voice are all part of establishing nonverbal connections. Effective speakers use them to add depth to their messages, which might mean corroborating their words or might mean creating dissonance to make a point.

Example: Team leader Ted was coaching a newer team member, Amy. Ted knew she texted incessantly during work hours and was annoyed with her. As Ted was explaining a new procedure to Amy, his tone of voice was clipped and fast. Amy left the meeting feeling defeated because she felt like she wasn’t catching on as fast as she should.

Tip: Listen to yourself as you speak and make sure irritation, impatience, and frustration aren’t creeping into your tone of voice. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re trying to get across. If Amy was texting while Ted was talking to her, he could have used nonverbal cues to make a point. However, if she wasn’t, how would she know what to make of his attitude?

Hand gestures

Pointing and other hand gestures can be the nonverbal exclamation point on your sentences. However, if you rub your nose, constantly straighten your shirt, and smooth your hair, your fidgety behavior can be a sign of low confidence.

Example: Salesperson Sam talks with his hands. He’s dynamic and animated. Everyone loves Sam, and he’s one of the top salespeople in the company.

Tip: Notice your hand gestures and other movements. Control your impulse to “fiddle” with your clothes and hair as it distracts from your message. Use your hand gestures as a tool to get your point across and keep everyone paying attention.

Facial expressions

Face-to-face interactions mean … well … people see your face! Smiling, blinking, and nodding help convey interest and drive successful interactions. Grimaces, a crooked smile, a wrinkled brow, and pursed lips play into the message you’re sending, whether you want them to or not.

Example: Customer service Callie meets with clients every month. She says nice words, moderates her voice well, but her facial expression tells a different story. She scowls and frowns any time the customers speak. For this reason, she gets more complaints than anyone else in her department.

Tip: Keep your face from going rogue by looking in a mirror during telephone conversations. This helps you catch expressions that don’t back up what you’re saying, and break yourself of the habit of making them.

Eye contact

Maintaining eye contact is one of the best nonverbal ways to convey confidence. Shifting your eyes and letting your eyes roam send their own type of nonverbal message.

Example: IT Ida trains all new team members on the company’s system. Ida is patient, informative, and friendly. She maintains eye contact as she explains every step of the process, and also when the new person asks questions. Rarely ever does anyone complain about Ida.

Tip: Eye contact facilitates effective nonverbal communication when used appropriately. Make a concerted effort to maintain eye contact when you’re communicating.

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Physical space

People are picky about their personal space. Crowding people or talking too closely can be read as aggressive and annoying.

Example: Manager Meg leans into everyone’s cubicle when she talks. In the lunchroom, she leans over the tables. It makes everyone uncomfortable, and her intended message is diluted by her off-putting habit of leaning into people’s personal space.

Tip: Stay cognizant of others’ personal space and don’t crowd it. Avoid standing too close or encroaching your body, chair, or belongings into another person’s area.

Body posture

Standing up straight with your head held high exudes self-assurance. Slouching, or sitting with your arms folded, conveys low self-esteem and disinterest.

Example: Marketing Mark has slumped his shoulders ever since that summer when, as a 16-year-old, his height shot up by a foot. He’s smart and confident, but people think he has low self-esteem — all because of his slouching problem.

Tip: Do a self-check of your posture. Make sure you’re sitting up straight, arms uncrossed. This sends a confident, welcoming message to the person you’re communicating with.

Effective communication

Real body language drives effective communication. To be a strong communicator in the workplace, each team member must make sure that nonverbal messages line up with the actual words spoken instead of telling an entirely different story. Zenefits can help business leaders and HR professionals implement effective strategies to improve workplace communications.

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