Pallavi Pinakin explains how to read and navigate nonverbal communication

The importance of speech is generally overrated when talking about effective communication. Of course, words are important but they’re definitely not the acme of human interaction. According to several studies, as much as 50-90 percent of communication is nonverbal in nature so what you do is as important as what you say.

Nonverbal communication includes all our behaviours and mannerisms, which we scarcely give a second thought to – the way we hold ourselves, how we sit or walk, our gestures and how we look at someone. Together, these wordless signals paint a compelling picture that may or may not be in sync with the words we utter.

We have all experienced situations where speech and body language are at odds. For example, you might be convinced that a friend is feeling low or upset even if he insists that ‘everything is fine.’ Or your colleagues may be able to pick up on your dislike of a client even though you’ve never verbalised those feelings.

Whether or not you realise it, you’re constantly sending out and receiving nonverbal cues. By fine-tuning this process, you can be a sharper communicator. Knowing how to both interpret and deploy body language effectively will help you express yourself clearly, build credibility, understand the feelings of others and connect more deeply with them.

HOW DO THEY LOOK? To get a better sense of what people are thinking, watch carefully. This is particularly helpful during tense situations whether it is in conflict resolution or business negotiations.

For instance, during a difficult conversation with a colleague, look out for signs of disagreement and unhappiness such as downcast eyes, a blank expression, or his or her body facing away from you. Erecting a barrier like folded arms or fingers positioned to create a steeple shape in front of the face can indicate defensiveness.

Nonverbal behaviour should be read and interpreted as a whole. A single gesture or body posture that is sustained for a few seconds isn’t sufficient to go on. Once you recognise these signs, you’ll be better equipped to address the situation appropriately. Or you may leave the meeting believing that everything worked out great even though the other person is left feeling unconvinced and upset.

HAVE YOU HEARD? Whether you’re delivering a team presentation or speaking at a conference, it’s important to know whether your audience is engaged. Keep an eye out for behaviour that signals boredom or indifference. These include staring into space, fidgeting, sitting in a slumped position, scribbling or doodling.

If you spot these signs, bring their attention back with a joke, story or question. You could also lean forward slightly as you reveal something important (a personal anecdote or game changing finding) to indicate that you’re taking listeners into your confidence. This is a good way to reignite their interest in you speech.

WHAT A FEELING! Did you know that what you believe to be gut instinct or just a feeling could be your mind picking up nonverbal cues?

For example, if you find yourself intuitively distrusting someone, it may be because you’ve subconsciously spotted certain red flags in his body language like shifty eyes, touching the face excessively while talking and so on. While these impressions aren’t always right, they’re definitely worth paying attention to and investigating.

YOUR BEST SELF Reading other people’s wordless signals is only half the battle. How about your own body language? Are your nonverbal cues aligned with your words? And do they project the image you desire?

Universally, the best posture is confident yet relaxed. For instance, stand or sit straight with your hands by your side. Avoid placing your hands on your hips (it makes you seem aggressive) or slouching (which makes you look insecure or lazy). Similarly, ensure your handshake is firm and not limp or crushing. A handshake is considered a minor bond between two people.

BUILDING TRUST To communicate trustworthiness, nothing is quite as effective as good eye contact. Hold the other person’s gaze for a little while and look away every now and then to break the monotony.

Continuous eye contact may be interpreted as staring; it could make the other person uncomfortable. In addition, be careful not to touch your face excessively while talking as this is associated with dishonesty and craftiness.

A great way to create good rapport is through mirroring – i.e. adopting a position or demeanour similar to that of the other person. So if they sit down, take a seat yourself; and smile if they laugh. Mirroring sends the message that you’re an ally and ready to forge a meaningful connection. But be careful not to replicate the behaviour exactly as it could be mistaken for mimicry!