Nonverbal Communication and Leadership

Nonverbal Communication and Leadership

Jeff Wolf, President, RCC

Time to read: 3 minutes

Functions of Nonverbal Communication

It’s vital to understand how we communicate, not just the meaning of the words we speak.  As a leader or manager, you should explore how nonverbal communication serves many functions:

  • Repetition.
    Gestures, such as nodding, serve to reinforce what’s being said.  A nod of the head is, in fact, one of the most universal gestures, understood across many cultures as an agreement or understanding between two people.
  • Substitution.
    Substitution involves replacing a spoken word with a nonverbal cue.  You can nod your head without saying a word or wave your hand instead of saying good-bye.  You haven’t uttered a word, yet you have communicated effectively.
  • Complement.
    A smile or pat on the back can complement words of enthusiasm or praise.
  • Accenting.
    You may accent a particular word in a sentence, such as “I am very disappointed in you!”  A strong tone of voice dramatizes the message.
  • Misleading or deceiving.
    Can you tell when an employee is lying? Detecting deception is usually based on nonverbal cues.  Facial expressions, body movement, and tone of voice will often expose the truth versus lies in criminal investigations.

Improving Nonverbal Communication

Workplace communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, drives all activity between you and others.

So, how do you improve it as you listen to and speak with others?

Step 1: Watch yourself…and others. When communicating, focus on the use of your body.  The goal is to increase the expressive nature of your body, when appropriate, with being overdramatic. Be aware that gestures are often more useful with groups such as in meetings and presentations. If a person’s words fail to match their nonverbal cues, it’s best to trust the nonverbal messages.  Listen with your eyes.  In most cases, the nonverbal message is more accurate.

Step 2: Maintain eye contact.  Eye contact is crucial when speaking with anyone, particularly coworkers, superiors, or direct reports.  It promotes trust and understanding.  Try to increase eye contact when speaking with others, and see if they’re making and maintaining eye contact with you. If someone avoids eye contact, you’ll likely sense the person’s discomfort or dishonesty. You can ease another’s discomfort by asking questions that enhance communication.

Step 3: Work on your posture.  Your mother emphasized the need to stand up straight and avoid slouching in your chair.  As it turns out, Mom was giving you your first lesson in nonverbal communication.  Posture is a nonverbal indicator of confidence level.

A gesture conveys a message by using one part of the body, whereas a postural shift involves the movement of the body as a whole.  A closed posture (folded arms and crossed legs) indicates a closed personality and a lack of confidence.  Open posture (arms spread in a relaxed manner) is a much more confident pose. Posture should also be in sync with conversations so you avoid sending mixed messages.  When you’re sitting behind your desk or at a meeting table, sit up straight.  Don’t slump; it conveys disinterest and inattention.  Leaning back, or rocking back and forth in your chair, tells others you’re bored.  In contrast, leaning forward in your chair when listening to someone speak demonstrates active interest in both the person and conversations.

Step 4: Straighten your desk.  A sloppy desk or office sends the message that you’re disorganized and careless. Messy desks may be a symptom of a larger problem such as inefficiency, which stems from an inability to find files or other important papers. Disorganization creates stress and limits productivity.  Instead of creating vertical piles on your desk, rely on to-do files that can be stored inside a drawer.

Step 5: Read your audience.  If you’re making a presentation, be aware of your audience’s nonverbal communication. As your presentation progresses, watch for signs of slouching, yawning, or dozing off; this means you’ve lost their attention. If, on the other hand, the group is energized and interested, participants’ body language may convey that they want you to ask for their thoughts and input.  Learning to read a group’s mood enhances your abilities as both a speaker and manager.

Step 6: Listen to your voice.  Paralanguage, or paralinguistics, involves the various fluctuations in one’s voice, such as tone, pitch, rhythm, inflections, and volume.  These cues can have a powerful effect on communication.  A loud or very forceful tone, for example, may convey a stronger and more serious message, as compared to softer tones.  Sarcasm can also cause problems in the workplace.  A manager’s sarcastic tone creates stress because their tone (joking) is meant to contradict their words (hurtful or biting).

Step 7: Question yourself. Throughout the day, monitor your progress.  Ask yourself the following questions about your performance: How was I perceived at the meeting? Could I have done something differently? Were people really interested and paying attention to what I was saying? Did I listen well to others? As you answer these questions, your self-awareness will increase.

Adapted from Seven Disciplines of a Leader

Contact us today to discuss how we can partner together to help develop your leaders:, 858-638-8260 or Twitter: @JeffWolfUSA Leadership Blog



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