In a very general sense, non-verbal communication simply includes all communication which is not achieved purely through the use of words or other symbols which perform the same task as words. However, as discussed below under Non-verbal Terms, that distinction is not always clear cut.
Regardless of the occasional demarcation disputes, non-verbal communication occurs within the same basic framework (i.e. output, transmission and input, to condense thousands of pages into three words) as does communication which is dependent on discrete symbols such as words. As I mentioned earlier, that process is very briefly discussed in Appendix 1. Incidentally, I am still avoiding the term "verbal communication", because it is sometimes applied to the spoken word alone, and sometimes to both the spoken word and the written word.
Now, although we might assume that words provide most of the information we exchange, careful observation of people who are communicating reveals a veritable flood of non-verbal information. This may be exchanged at the same time as the verbal information. Alternatively, it may be the whole of the information in cases where no verbal component is present.
I am very tempted to revisit my earlier brief but important remarks about the non-transferable nature of meaning, because this chapter is also about our constant attempts to transfer meaning. However, you can easily find those brief remarks in the first chapter (and many references to them elsewhere in the book) so I will content myself with a reminder that sender and receiver have different sense organs and different cognitive function, and that many other factors also influence meaning.
There have not been very many studies of non-verbal communication, and hardly any have been quantitative. However, a study by Albert Mehrabian in 1971 provided some interesting information about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages in determining the receiver's impression of the sender's emotions. Specifically, each receiver was asked to assess whether the sender was expressing liking, neutrality or disliking.
Mehrabian found that, on average, words contributed 7% of the total influence on this assessment, while tone of voice and visual clues contributed 38% and 55% respectively. These three aspects of communication are sometimes referred to as "verbal, vocal and visual" (or "the three Vs"). However, the three Vs do not cover all the input/output methods previously discussed. The vocal component provides a large part of the auditory information but not necessarily all of it. Similarly, the visual component provides a large part of the non-auditory body language – but again, not necessarily all of it.
When a verbal message was incongruent with a non-verbal message in Mehrabian's study, the non-verbal message determined the outcome. Unfortunately, though, this study is often cited in support of claims about the superior importance of non-verbal communication in general, a subject which it did not address. It only addressed the receiver's assessment of the degree of liking or disliking expressed by the sender.
However, it does seem reasonable to expect that non-verbal communication might be important in any situation involving emotions or attitudes. This certainly seems to be the impression of many authors who write about communication. However, it is important to remember that impressions derived from experience are not always confirmed by experiment.
It is also worth remembering that the considerable importance ascribed to non-verbal communication, when communicating about emotions or attitudes, is balanced by the similarly considerable importance of words, when communicating about facts, logic, concepts, philosophy and the like.
It is not always immediately obvious whether an instance of communication should be considered verbal or non-verbal. Some gestures have agreed meanings which are at least as precise as those of some words. Perhaps, like writing and signing, specific gestures should be considered as verbal communication via the visual input. By the same token, a word which is screamed loudly and harshly could be thought of as non-verbal communication via the auditory input – especially if its meaning did not fit the context.
Another way of looking at this issue is to consider whether the meaning is explicit (precisely defined) or implicit (imprecisely evoked). Words are usually explicit, and gestures are usually implicit. However, in the above examples, the gestures were examples of largely explicit communication, and the screamed word was an example of largely implicit communication.
Another example of communication which has a considerable implicit element, despite being based on words, is the symbolic communication mentioned in the previous article under Shades of Meaning. Here, the words and their order are chosen in such a way that a meaning beyond the strictly literal interpretation of the words is possible. However, that meaning is not explicitly stated.
Despite these examples, most of the communication performed with words is explicit, while most of the communication performed without words is implicit. Probably for this reason, non-verbal communication is often used to express sentiments which would not be acceptable if communicated explicitly. A frown, for example, can convey disapproval or disagreement without (usually) causing overt hostility.
A more complex classification of non-verbal behaviour was suggested by Ekman and Friesen. Five types were described, and were referred to as translatable, illustrative, affect-display, regulator and adapter. Translatable (also called "emblem") non-verbal behaviour consists of specific actions with known meanings, such as some gestures. Illustrative behaviours are those which effectively demonstrate something, perhaps by drawing a picture in the air, or showing the movement required to perform a task which is under discussion.
Affect-display behaviour allows others to see the visible effects of emotions, and thus to deduce the nature of those emotions. Regulator actions are those which are designed consciously to control the behaviour of one or more other people present, such as holding up a hand to stop someone talking.
Finally, adapter behaviour consists of actions performed to improve or maintain the comfort or security of the person exhibiting the behaviour. This could be something as simple as changing position in a chair, or scratching an itch. (In most cases, this behaviour is not intended as a form of communication at all. However, everything which can be noticed by another person may communicate something – whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not.)
Another common non-verbal behaviour, which is not specifically included in the above list, is mirroring. This means copying the behaviour of another person, such as crossing or uncrossing the arms, or leaning back or forward, during a conversation. It is often done unconsciously, and it may sometimes reflect agreement or approval. It can also be done consciously, perhaps in an attempt to put the other person at their ease. However, deliberate mirroring behaviour can easily appear artificial, and thus be counterproductive.
The previous paragraphs are a reminder of the mechanism of communication, which is action. In the case of words, the main actions are speaking, writing and typing. In the case of non-verbal communication, actions performed by almost any part of the body can create the "vocabulary". For this reason, non-verbal communication is also called body language. (Some non-verbal communication is also created indirectly, for example, by showing a film, choosing particular clothes or creating and maintaining a comfortable environment.)
Clearly, it will not be possible to list all the actions in the non-verbal repertoire. However, I will mention a few examples under the next heading. The stimuli to which a person may respond are many and various, and some can be almost infinitesimally small. Any of the five senses may be involved as inputs, and most parts of the body can create the output signals. Many of the ways in which we respond to these signals may be learned, but others are almost certainly instinctive.
Increasing your understanding of non-verbal communication is the first step in improving your own use and comprehension of this vital aspect of interpersonal interaction. Under the present heading, I will discuss various aspects of non-verbal communication between two people. I may sometimes refer to one of the two as a client or a patient, if it suits the context. However, much of the content could apply to any two people, neither of whom need be in a professional role. Some of it could also be extrapolated to small or large groups of people.
Appearance and personal hygiene are two very important sources of non-verbal messages, especially at the time of the initial contact. Most people find it easier to relate to someone who is clean, reasonably well groomed, and dressed in a way which does not elicit strong reactions. Minor health problems such as bad breath or unpleasant body odours can have a disproportionately large effect on a patient or client.
An adverse first impression can be a considerable barrier to the development of a satisfactory rapport. The damage done in the first few seconds may take hours to undo, and may occasionally mar a relationship forever. The relevant factors are not limited to those mentioned. Almost everything about a person can contribute to the all-important first impression. This includes the so-called "object communication" created by things like clothes, jewellery and hairstyle.
The distance between you and another person may affect the reception of directly transmitted information by the receiver's inputs. For example, if you are too far apart, you may not be able to hear each other's speech clearly. The other inputs can also be affected by distance, in similar ways.
Your position relative to a client also sends quite a few messages of its own. Talking to a patient who is in bed, from the corridor, may be interpreted to mean that normal proximity is not desirable. Any number of possible reasons could be imagined for this, such as that the communication is considered unimportant, the patient is thought to be infectious, or the prognosis is so terrible that you cannot bear to face them. Any unusually distant position could have a similar effect.
While excessive distance usually has an adverse influence, close proximity may have positive or negative effects. It might suggest friendliness, preparation for a confidential discussion or the natural behaviour of a warm and caring personality. On the other hand, it might seem threatening, or even downright offensive, depending on the situation and the person involved.
Distance is not the only aspect of the spatial relationship between people. For example, standing above a person who is sitting or lying down may interfere with recognition of facial and ocular expressions and gestures, and may also make the person feel at a disadvantage in various ways. Sitting in a low chair beside someone in a high bed creates a more or less opposite vertical displacement, with its own set of drawbacks.
Even when two people are at the same vertical level, their orientation can vary greatly. The main possibilities are face to face, side to side, back to back and all the angles in between. In most situations, having at least an oblique view of the other person's face is highly desirable. Approximately face to face orientation has advantages, as all aspects of both verbal and non-verbal communication are then easier to exchange.
However, face to face orientation can seem confrontational, especially if the distance between the two people is small, so an oblique angle may be preferred. When a desk is present, one solution is for the client to sit beside one end of the desk, instead of facing the interviewer across the whole desktop. The two then view each other across a corner of the desk.
Some interviewers prefer to leave the desk altogether and sit side by side with the client, turning their chairs in obliquely. This is less formal, but it makes it more difficult to manage multiple documents, take notes or use a computer. Therefore, in cases where a fair amount of data entry or retrieval is necessary, this would not usually be the ideal orientation.
The posture of the body is in some ways analogous to the expression of the face, and provides communicative output in a similar way. Sometimes, an unusual posture may be due to physical or mental illness, but usually it can be controlled consciously, with consequent improvement in communication.
Consider the following possible postures. Standing rigid and immobile; crouching, poised as if ready to escape; slumped in a chair waiting for backache to strike; squatting uncomfortably on the floor and wobbling precariously; or sitting comfortably in a position which allows both relaxation and balance.
Of those listed, only the last makes much sense as a posture for good communication. There are many other possibilities, of course – some suitable for good communication and some not. The important thing about posture is that it should provide a stable and comfortable base from which to communicate.
I will consider large-scale movements, and the body positions they create, under this heading. I will look at the movements called gestures under the next heading, and facial movements after that. They are all movements, of course. However, I think it will be more convenient to discuss them separately.
Visual communicators probably notice movements more than other communicators do. However, tactile communicators may not be far behind, especially in cases where the movement suggests the possibility of contact, or perhaps evokes some aspect of bodily comfort. Auditory and verbal communicators are likely to pay least attention to movements (unless they have good visual or tactile communication skills as well).
Moving closer might suggest interest, concern, affection, aggression, deafness or many other things, depending partly on the context and partly on the receiver. Moving away might suggest a lack of interest in the conversation, an uncaring attitude, fear, dislike, shock, disapproval, considerately allowing the other person more space – or various other things.
Crossed arms might convey a superior attitude, a closed mind, disapproval, defensiveness, or perhaps just a comfortable position. Immobility might convey a lack of interest, falling asleep, or perhaps very close attention to the other person.
Touching one's own face during a conversation is often taken to mean that one is either lying or withholding information. However, it could just as easily be an attempt to hide part of the face because of shyness. For that matter, it could be due to an itch, an attempt to stifle a sneeze (or a yawn) or perhaps just a self conscious check on a previously noticed blemish.
Another action – actually a deferring of action – which is sometimes taken as a sign of a dishonest answer is a pause before answering. I suppose this could just as well be classified as a Sound Effect, because it affects the rhythm of the auditory component of communication.
Anyway, the idea is that it takes time to formulate a good lie, whereas the truth is immediately available. The problem with this theory is that it can also take time to review the question and consider all the facts relevant to a good answer. Consequently, honest people might also pause before answering – and indeed, in my experience, they often do.
Some movements, and the consequent changes of position, cannot be avoided without sitting like a statue (which would send its own message). They therefore form an unavoidable non-verbal background to face to face communication. Consequently, it is important to pay attention to them.
Sometimes, paying attention to your own body language will allow you to catch inappropriate movements of your own before they even occur. For example, if a client shares something with you, which you find distressing or disgusting, you may notice some warning signs before you actually react.
You may feel your body preparing to recoil as if from a snake, or your face beginning to look disgusted. If so, you have a small window of opportunity in which to nip those disasters in the bud. Even if you only notice your mistake after it happens, you can at least try to ameliorate the damage – and also learn from the mistake, reducing the chance of a repeat performance.
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