Scientific research on nonverbal communication and behavior began with in 1872 with Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Since then, an incredible amount of research on the types and effects of non-spoken communication has been conducted.
According to experts, a substantial portion of our communication is nonverbal. Facial expression, tone and pitch of voice, gestures, posture, and eye contact send messages that are even more powerful than words. Each day, we respond to thousands on nonverbal cues. These cues reveal how we are feeling, how we relate to situations, how we relate to others, and how others relate to us.
Understanding non-verbal communication is important in both our personal and professional lives. People in certain professions, like salespeople and lawyers, tend to spend a lot of time learning and using non-verbal communication to convey a specific message and “read” their audiences. They understand that non-verbal communication:Reinforces or modifies what is said with words.
-Reinforces or modifies what is said with words.
-Conveys information about one’s emotional state.
-Defines the relationship between people.
-Provides feedback to the other person.
-Can even regulate the flow of communication.
Nonverbal signals are powerful. Has anyone ever apologized to you, hands on hips, in a loud voice with an angry look on their face? If so, did you believe that they were truly sorry? Probably not, because despite their words, you were reading their non-verbal cues. When non-verbal cues don’t “match” what is being said, people tend to believe the non-verbal.
As a medical professional, non-verbal communication is vital. Your patients and their families are constantly interpreting much what you are “saying.” Do you use non-verbal communication to display confidence and compassion, or do you tend to send a very different message? Think about these key points:
Facial expression is responsible for a huge portion of nonverbal communication. The look on a person’s face is often the first thing we see, even before we hear what they have to say. While nonverbal communication and behavior can vary dramatically among cultures, facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are the same. Think about what the look on your face conveys to others.
Eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul. They also play an important role in nonverbal communication. Normal, steady eye contact conveys trustworthiness. Eye contact is often taken as a sign that a person is telling the truth. Avoiding eye contact is frequently interpreted as lying or deception, even when this may not be the case.
Movements and gestures are another important part of nonverbal communication. Gestures alone make a significant impact. In courtroom settings, lawyers have been known to utilize different nonverbal signals in attempt to sway jurors. These nonverbal signals can be so powerful that some judges place limits on what type of nonverbal behaviors are allowed in the courtroom.
Unlike facial expressions, gestures can be related to culture. A thumbs-up, for example, indicates approval in the U.S. but is considered offensive in Italy and some parts of the Middle East. The excessive use of, or waving of the arms is common in Italy but could be considered by other cultures to be aggressive.
Posture can convey volumes, including someone’s degree of confidence or receptivity to others. Posture can be “open” or “closed.” Closed posture like folded arms, crossed legs, or not directly facing a person can indicate discomfort and/or disinterest. Open posture like hands at sides and facing directly, indicates openness, interest, and willingness to listen.
Proxemics, or personal space, is another important type of nonverbal communication. The amount of distance we feel comfortable with depends on a number of things including culture, social norms, situational factors, personality, and familiarity. Invading one’s personal space not only makes the other uncomfortable, it can be interpreted as a sign of intimidation or aggression.
What you experience at work may not always make it easy to focus on your non-verbal communication, but if you understand how your non-verbal cues may be interpreted and remain self-aware, you can use non-verbal communication as a way in which to help improve the workplace and patient experience.
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