Types of Nonverbal Communication (With Definition and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 20 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

People communicate in the workplace through phone calls, emails and face-to-face interactions. During these conversations, nonverbal signals, such as shrugging, tone changes and closeness, can provide additional context to what you and your colleagues mean and how they feel. Learning the variety of body language cues and other forms of nonverbal communication can help you have more effective conversations with colleagues and customers. In this article, we define nonverbal communication and learn types of nonverbal communication, along with tips to improve yours and how you can understand others'.

What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is the message one person portrays to another in ways other than talking. This includes gestures, eye contact, body language and posture. Nonverbal communication can happen during conversations to suggest certain emotions or thoughts. Nonverbal communication happens whether or not people perform it intentionally, so it's important to be self-aware in the workplace.

Related: 10 Effective Communication Skills for Career Success

What are the different types of communication?

There are four main ways that people communicate: verbal, nonverbal, visual and written. Here are brief descriptions for each:

  • Verbal: verbal communication is the use of speech or sign language to transfer information. Verbal communication requires listening and speaking and you use it in meetings and on conference calls.

  • Nonverbal: nonverbal communication is the use of gestures, facial expressions and body language to complement your verbal communication. Nonverbal communication identifies or clarifies what you or others are feeling or thinking while communicating.

  • Visual: visual communication uses diagrams like graphics to communicate meaning and information to your colleagues. Often presented with verbal communication, visual communication provides additional information or context to others.

  • Written: written communication uses words and numbers typed, written or printed to communicate with others. In the workplace, the most common form of written communication is email.

Types of nonverbal communication

Here is a list of ways you can communicate nonverbally:

Voice inflexions

Changes in your voice, such as your tone of voice, affect what you say. Besides tone, inflexions include the volume and pitch of your voice. If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, you might speak quietly to draw less attention to yourself. Speaking too loudly can make the person you're talking to feel you're trying to speak over them or overpower their opinion.

Sarcasm is also an example of nonverbal communication because it involves saying words in a tone that conveys the opposite meaning. For example, if you're being sarcastically enthusiastic about a situation, you might say “Oh, great” in a sarcastic tone. Although the words show a positive response, the way you say it shows otherwise.

Proximity

The proximity of your body to another person's body is another form of nonverbal communication. Your personal space is the close area around your body. For most people, this space is only for romantic partners, close friends and family members to enter. In the workspace, it's important to maintain a professional distance, but leaning in can show engagement or authority while leaning out or sitting at a further distance can show disinterest.

Body movements

Body movements, or kinetics, include nonverbal cues like nodding or gesturing with your hands. These common examples of body movements can convey your excitement about a conversation or topic. Some body movements can be involuntary, such as wringing your hands, shaking when you're nervous or clearing your throat. Sometimes these movements can distract others, especially if you're in a job interview or giving a professional presentation. Body movements can be in response to what others say or do, too, for example, opening your mouth to express surprise.

Posture

The way you hold your body can make an impression on those around you. Standing and sitting are common positions in professional settings, so noticing how you look when you're in either position is important. When you stand with your head held high and your back straight, you're nonverbally communicating assurance and confidence. A slouched position with your back curved and your head facing downward can convey the opposite, causing you to appear indifferent or uncertain.

Touch

Touching another person is a key aspect of nonverbal communication. A hug conveys warmth and love, while a pat on the back can convey a job well done. Unsolicited touch can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, so it's important to make sure your touch is always professional in the workplace.

The most common form of touch in a professional setting is a handshake, which can also convey different meanings. A weak or limp handshake may show a lack of confidence, while a firm handshake conveys strength and respect.

Facial expressions

Your face can often reveal your emotions in a situation. The expression you make can also change the meaning of the words you say or show how you feel about what someone else is saying to you. For example, raising an eyebrow can convey an inquisitive feeling or even a devious one.

Rolling your eyes is a way to express displeasure or unhappiness with a situation. As you speak to others, you can watch their facial expressions to get a better sense of their genuine reactions to what you say. Being aware of your own facial expressions is also important, especially in a professional atmosphere.

Eye contact

Maintaining eye contact shows your interest and engagement with the person speaking to you. If the person you're talking to is looking away from you, this nonverbal form of communication shows distraction or unease. When a person is being untruthful, they often have trouble making eye contact, which is another nonverbal cue. To maintain effective communication, try to focus on what the other person is saying and look into their eyes as they speak. Eye contact is also a very important way to communicate interest in a job interview.

Related: Job Interview Tips: How To Make a Great Impression

Gestures

Gestures are one of the most directive forms of nonverbal communication. Pointing to direct others to look or to give directions or waving to say hello are common gestures. It's important to note that different gestures may change meaning in other cultures. For example, in Hong Kong people may consider winking to be a rude gesture and in other countries like the US, it can be a charming gesture. Understanding what nonverbal gestures might mean in different countries is important to learn prior to travelling for work.

Related: Interviewing Skills To Ace a Job Interview

Physiological changes

Physiological changes are often most linked to discomfort and stress in a situation. These types of changes include blushing, sweating or crying. Physiological changes are often difficult to control and the changes in your body often reveal how you feel.

How to improve nonverbal communication

There are several important ways you can improve your nonverbal communication in the workplace. Here are some tips to consider:

1. Develop social awareness

Being intentional with your gestures or expressions can help you practice more appropriate habits. For example, if you slouch and cross your arms in a meeting, practise sitting up straight and making eye contact to confirm your engagement. Similarly, understanding nonverbal communication can help you adjust how you communicate with them effectively. If you notice an employee avoiding eye contact or speaking quieter, be sure to speak with a softer tone to help them through this moment where they may be shy.

Some ways you benefit from social awareness include:

  • Accurately understanding the messages, especially nonverbal ones, that others send

  • Building trust by using nonverbal communication that matches the words you say

  • Responding to others thoughtfully

  • Maintaining control of how you respond

Related: Interpersonal Skills: Definition and Examples

2. Manage stress

Many nonverbal cues result from stress or other unexpected situations. Managing your stress can help you both control your nonverbal communication and understand others. You might feel stressed in situations where you lead meetings or present to a team. In these instances, talking fast or shaking hands can show that you're nervous. Grounding yourself using breathing or other stress management techniques can help you avoid the nonverbal signals you want to avoid.

Tips for understanding nonverbal communication

Here are a few steps you can take when learning to understand body language:

  • Notice inconsistencies: see if the person you communicate with is sending mixed messages through verbal communication and body language and ask them to clarify. For example, if someone is nodding in agreement but saying, "no", ask them what they mean.

  • Notice patterns: someone might yawn once or slouch, but this might not mean they are disinterested. Identifying groups or patterns of similar expressions can help you understand what someone wants to communicate.

  • Trust your instincts: body language can sometimes be subtle, so it's important to adjust your communication from what you notice. For example, a lack of eye contact and a forceful tone can indicate a disconnect between their confidence and uncertainty.

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