“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone”
COMMUNICATION AT WORK
In his first week at the Indian Institute of Management, Ravindra had a misunderstanding with one of his classmates. One fine evening, Rishi stormed into Ravindra’s room when he was studying. He asked Ravindra for a book, the work of a Nobel laureate, that Rishi had borrowed from the library. Giving Rishi the book was not an issue, but the way Rishi asked for it surprised Ravindra. Rishi came into the room and said rather abruptly: “What the hell are you going to do with the book? Why not hand it over to me?” This sounded a bit insulting to Ravindra; he felt that for some reason Rishi thought he could not read or understand the book. He was hurt. Still, he gave Rishi the book as he was not studying from it at that time.
Though Ravindra did not tell Rishi that he did not like his language and tone, Rishi could tell something was wrong from Ravindra’s face. Before leaving, he told Ravindra that that was the usual way he spoke with his friends and he should not be offended. Initially, Ravindra was not satisfied by this explanation, but after interacting with Rishi for a few weeks, he no longer minded his brusque style.
Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:
Know the meaning and characteristics of non-verbal communication.
Understand the function of body talk in fully interpreting the underlying message of words.
Learn positive gestures, body movements, and facial expressions.
Recognize different cues and clues indicated by facial expressions, gestures, postures, body movements, and eye contact.
Understand silence as a mode of communication.
Learn how to build rapport.
Non-verbal means not involving words or speech. Thus, non-verbal communication refers to the wordless messages received through gestures, signs, body movements, facial expressions, tone of voice, colour, time, space and style of writing, and choice of words.
Animals communicate their deepest feelings of love, anger, joy, hunger, and desire for mating through gestures, cries, whistling, body movements, and many other signals known through instinct. Of course, the exact interpretation of such signs and gestures does vary, but they are mutually understood within their species.
It is human beings alone who have evolved the language of words to convey our thoughts in a structured manner. Still, in moments of excitement, we tend to convey our feelings and emotions of joy, love, anger, and hatred by smiling, shouting, frowning, or using other wordless clues. Such non-verbal expressions of feelings come spontaneously. However, at times, we can deliberately lace our words with expressive tones, gestures, and facial expressions to heighten and modify the meaning of our words.
Some non-verbal message usually accompanies a verbal message. The verbal and the non-verbal together form the total meaning of the message communicated. In addition to the words uttered by the speaker, there is also usually something unsaid and implied, so to fully understand the message, the listener should pay attention to body language and non-verbal signals.
Unspoken messages are transmitted by non-verbal clues and signs (body movements and gestures). They exist in the form of meta-communication and kinesic communication (body talk). The receiver’s response to them influences the interpretation of messages received through words. Body language is not mind-reading. Rather, it involves instant revelations—flashes that are communicated from one subconscious to another. There is no deliberate attempt to give or receive non-verbal messages. The exchange happens spontaneously.
Know the meaning and characteristics of nonverbal communication.
Meta-communication is an implied meaning conveyed by the choice of words, tone of voice, fumbling, silence, or omission. It is a message communicated not by words, but along with words. Meta-communication can be intentional or unintentional. For example, consider the following statement: “Try to reach the airport well on time.” The remark offers sound advice. But the sentence, without stating it explicitly, implies that the listener is not punctual or is habitually late. Similarly, when someone wishes another person “best of luck”, it generally conveys good wishes, but also implies a sense of anxiety or fear that something untoward may happen.
Meta-communication is an implied meaning conveyed by the choice of words, tone of voice, fumbling, silence, or omission. It is a message communicated not by words, but along with words.
Meta-communication also occurs through the use of paralanguage. Paralanguage includes pitch, loudness of voice, and speech breakers such as “er”, “ah”, and “uh”, which show hesitation or caution. Just as a normal or low pitch of speaking shows calm and control, a loud voice communicates displeasure or anger. Prolonged gaps, pauses, or silence are also forms of paralanguage. When a leader speaks slowly with many uses of “er” and “uh”, he or she is usually being very careful and suspicious.
Kinesic communication is the message conveyed through non-verbal acts in the form of body movements such as gestures, winking, smiling, posture, or style of dressing and grooming, which send out a message that supports or contradicts the verbal message.
Kinesic communication is the message conveyed through non-verbal acts in the form of body movements such as gestures, winking, smiling, posture, or style of dressing and grooming, which send out a message that supports or contradicts the verbal message.
Kinesic communication is also known as body language or body talk. It includes the entire non-verbal behaviour of the communicator. A non-verbal act is often subconscious. It transmits unstated feelings and attitudes and hidden intentions. Non-verbal signs offer clues to the receiver, and help the receiver understand and correctly perceive the total meaning of the message.
A non-verbal message conveyed through body movements is known as leakage. A successful receiver is able to observe and interpret the leakage. Though it is not possible to have an exhaustive account of all leakages and what they signify, a few examples that illustrate the modifying effect of body movements on communication are given in Exhibit 7.1.
|Non-verbal Acts||Possible Unspoken Idea|
|A senior looks at his watch while you are talking||“Your time is over, go away.”|
|A person winks after saying something||“Do not believe what I just said.”|
|An executive is always late for meetings||“I am always very busy.”|
|“I am not bothered about your time.”|
|A speaker prefers to speak from the floor rather than the dais.||“I want to show my sense of equality with you (the audience).”|
Paralanguage includes pitch, loudness of voice, and speech breakers such as “er”, “ah”, and “uh”, which can show hesitation.
A writer’s style or a speaker’s tone of voice and facial expressions indicate his or her attitude and feelings beyond what is being expressed through words.
Understand the function of body talk in fully interpreting the underlying message of words.
- Non-verbal communication occurs via instrumental body movements. When someone moves their hands to perform some function, such as wash their face, it is an instrumental movement and not a symbolic clue. Most body movements, with the exception of instrumental movements, have meaning and communicate something. Communicative movements act as non-verbal clues. For example, wiping one’s mouth when confronted by an authority figure communicates nervousness and using the hand gesture to wave goodbye communicates courtesy and friendship.
- Non-verbal cues may be conscious or unconscious. They reveal the speaker’s state of mind and inner feelings and emotions, which may be real or affected. Trained actors and orators intentionally use gestures, facial expressions, body movements, and postures to create the intended impact on their audience. Effective writers use stylistic devices to convey hidden feelings and attitudes.
However, in real-life, most people betray their inner thoughts and feelings through unconscious signs. The speaker may not realize that he or she is conveying these feelings. For example, consider the following statement on bilateral talks between two unfriendly countries made by the representatives with tense facial expression or without a smile: “The meeting has made history.”
- The interpretation of non-verbal clues differs from person to person. For example, if a listener maintains continuous eye contact, the speaker may take it as a sign of perfect attention and full acceptance, but to someone else it could be a sign that the listener feels helpless or trapped.
The visible is usually more convincing than what is heard as it may support or contradict the verbal message. Non-verbal clues are often taken as indicators of reality. For example, the pale face of a person in danger contradicts his or her claim of fearlessness. The trembling of a speaker indicates nervousness even though the speaker may say, “I feel encouraged and inspired to stand before such a learned audience.” Dress or language can also reveal the communicator’s status or education.
Dress or language can also reveal the communicator’s status or education.
- The same gestures may also be interpreted differently in different circumstances. For example, consider two colleagues, A and B, who are good friends. When A pats B on the back endearingly to congratulate her on a successful project, the pat is taken as a friendly gesture. Now, suppose A is the chairperson of a promotions committee and B is a candidate for promotion. To create a misunderstanding between A and B, someone tells B that A, as chairperson, opposed her promotion. When, on meeting her the next evening, A congratulates B and as usual pats her on the back, she recoils. This example shows that the relationship between two people also determines how they interpret each other’s gestures.
Non-verbal forms of communication include the following modes—paralanguage, meta-communication, kinesics, grooming, proxemics, and time language. The symbolic meaning associated with different body movements, gestures, and expressions is only suggestive and not specific in its import.
The symbolic meaning associated with different body movements, gestures, and expressions is only suggestive and not specific in its import.
Let us consider Ekman’s classification1 of communicative movements into five types:
- Emblems: When the movement of body parts represents ideas visually, the communicative act is emblematic, meaning it reflects the meaning non-verbally through a physical image. For instance, a circle made with the thumb and index finger, with the rest of the fingers stretched out straight, acts as an emblem for the “okay” sign in America. This sign is meaningful for those cultures that use the English alphabet. The circle is an image of the letter “O”. But in a different culture, the same circle “O” can represent a coin, just as it does in Japan. Another instance is that of the arbitrary gesture of holding up the thumb, which in Japan refers to a “boss”, and in India, means “perfect.”
- Illustrators: Illustrators are movements of hands and arms for representing the size, shape, frequency, or speed of something. For instance, widely stretched arms show enormity of size. According to Ekman, a speaker uses illustrators when he or she is enthusiastic or fully involved in the subject being discussed. In such a state, the speaker involuntarily dramatizes ideas by using the movements of arms to focus on an idea or an event.
- Body manipulators: These are acts of touching one’s own body or an object for no reason. Examples include fidgeting with jewellery or touching one’s buttons. These are unintentional acts. However, some consider them to be clues of nervousness, anxiety, or boredom.
- Facial expressions: The most expressive part of our bodies are our faces. Our faces reflect our thoughts and feelings. Smiling, frowning, blushing, paleness, and so on reveal positive and negative feelings. These are emotional expressions that show on the face. The most fundamental emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear are involuntarily marked on our faces.
- Regulators—eye movements: Eye movements such as squinting, winking, and staring are called regulators. Eye contact, a smile, or a frown is a strong message of interest, involvement, acceptance, rejection, or annoyance. Other people notice these and form impressions about the person communicating based on these. While communicating, remember the popular saying: the face reflects the mind; the eyes reveal the heart. For example, eye contact shows attentiveness and interest. On the other hand, rolling one’s eyes is associated with restlessness and contempt. Staring can communicate threat. Wide open eyes show wonder or shock. A wink following a statement negates the seriousness of the statement made. Similarly, raised eyebrows or a wrinkled forehead symbolizes objection and questioning. Avoiding eye contact shows nervousness or evasiveness.
A favourable impact can be created by using eye contact, natural facial expressions and eye movements, and a smile that reflects a pleasant state of mind.
A smile shows that an interaction has been pleasant for the participant in a conversation. Perhaps, it would not be wrong to say that in most face-to-face communications, the most positive impression is made by a smiling face. The situation may be an interview, a negotiation, or a one-on-one meeting. Even in telephone conversations, one is able to feel the impact of a smiling voice. Unlike smiling, frowning is uninviting. It might suggest to other people that the person wants to be left alone.
Learn positive gestures, body movements, and facial expressions.
By practising positive body language, one can gradually develop positive feelings. Body language can induce a state of mind that can act as a positive shield against negative feelings. One can learn to communicate sincerity and concern in business dealings by using positive body language to support words of greetings, courtesy, and customer care. Avoid negative leakage. Learn to look confident, assertive, and positive. Avoid appearing nervous, aggressive, rude, pompous, indifferent or overbearing, and superior to others.
Most people are not aware of the non-verbal messages they give out to others. Therefore, it is important to develop awareness about various body movements and gestures and their possible interpretations by others.
As discussed earlier, most people are not aware of the non-verbal messages they give out to others. Therefore, it is important to develop awareness about various body movements and gestures and their possible interpretations by others. The associated messages of some significant body movements and gestures are discussed in this section.
When a person speaks, his or her hands move freely to indicate the meaning of his or her words. Such gestures are natural. They cannot be avoided. They give strength to the speaker’s words. But gestures should be seen in terms of whether they have a positive or negative message. Although gestures are spontaneous, we can learn to monitor and use positive gestures and minimize, if not avoid, the negative ones.
Positive gestures are body signals that make the communicator look relaxed, confident, and polite.
Positive gestures are body signals that make the communicator look relaxed, confident, and polite. Positive listening gestures include leaning a little towards the other person, tilting the head, making eye contact, and gently nodding as a sign of agreement or understanding. Such gestures encourage the speaker to a great extent. Positive speaking gestures include keeping the hands open and avoiding clutching or folding them across the chest.
When walking, keep your head upright. Hands should swing freely by the sides. Eyes should look straight in front. Steps should be well measured and steady. Many people carry books, files, and documents held against the chest. This makes the person look nervous and defensive. To avoid being perceived as a nervous person, one could carry them on one side. We can use our gestures to politely communicate what we want when we are unable to speak or are interrupting someone. For example, during a serious, formal conversation, if you are offered water or tea, you may politely hold up your palm to ask the other person to wait or to decline if you do not want to interrupt the conversation. Similarly, if you are on the phone and someone asks you something, you can politely request him or her to wait a minute by holding up one finger or some other symbolic gesture. This ensures that you do not ignore the visitor.
Recognize different cues and clues given by facial expressions, gestures, postures, body movements, and eye contact.
Gestures can be adequate substitutes for words. We should develop the skill of using them effectively. Equally importantly, we should recognize our negative gestures and learn to hide them.
Negative gestures involve certain body movements, postures, gestures, or non-verbal activities such as shaking, tapping one’s feet, looking at the watch, and so on. Putting one’s hands in the pockets is also a negative gesture. If you put one hand in your pocket, it usually suggests arrogance. If you put both, it might show nervousness. However, if you want to look confident, but not nervous or arrogant, thrust your hands in your pockets, then keep the thumb out, so that you do not fully insert your hands inside the pockets.
Take note of the clues in Exhibit 7.2.
Signs of nervousness include the following:
putting hands in one’s pockets, covering the mouth with the hand while speaking, scratching, nail biting, sideways glances, finger-drumming, clearing the throat too often, foot tapping, hand-wringing, crossing arms or legs, a slumped posture, sitting on the edge of the chair, rocking one’s legs, looking at the ceiling, straightening one’s tie, fixing one’s hair, speaking too fast or too haltingly
The following are the loudest gestures of nervousness:
adjusting one’s glasses; blinking excessively; fidgeting with jewellery, watches, or cufflinks; clicking a pen; frequently sipping water; playing with a paperweight; smoking
Gestures showing aggression are as follows:
staring, pointing at someone, showing one’s fist, folding both arms, bending over someone
Gestures showing rudeness include the following:
shaking hands too firmly or too limply; standing too close; whispering at a social gathering; talking, checking e-mail, or sending text messages on one’s cell phone or BlackBerry in meetings or social situations; working while someone is talking; yawning; smirking; glancing at the clock frequently during a conversation; making “tut-tut” sounds; grooming, specially fixing one’s hair, when listening or speaking; gathering and folding papers before the meeting is over
Gestures that show self-importance and should be carefully avoided in situations that demand solutions and negotiated settlements are:
keeping one’s eyes closed while talking, tilting one’s head backwards while talking, looking at the tip of one’s nose while talking, pursing the mouth, steepling the fingers, peering over the top of one’s spectacles, waving a glass or key while talking
Gestures showing lack of good sense include:
banging the table instead of laughing at a joke, chewing on the end of a pen, using air quotes and making a “T” in the air when asking for tea, waving one’s hands around excessively while talking, wringing one’s hands, opening or closing buttons or fidgeting with one’s watch strap while talking, wiping one’s hands on the face, touching the nose time and again
Some authority figures, without saying anything, can make one feel subordinate by behaving in the following ways, which display a sense of superiority:
not responding to or acknowledging the other’s greeting, staring, shouting orders, standing too close, leaning or sitting on someone’s desk, standing behind someone’s seat and watching over his or her shoulder as he or she works, smoking in someone’s space, attending to one’s cell phone during meetings, making any unwanted or unwarranted physical contact, continuing to work when others address you, having a crushing handshake or holding the other person’s hand for too long, reclining in the chair with hands folded behind the head
Creating a feeling of subordination and hierarchy adversely affects good working relationships and makes others uncomfortable. Therefore, executives should avoid such power posturing.
Besides non-verbal gestures that convey wordless messages through body language and facial expressions, there are other wordless signs of power, position, taste, and culture such as decoration and size of one’s office, dress, grooming, and so on. These are called lateral gestures and include the following broad categories: (a) physical setting, (b) dress—clothes and shoes, and (c) personal space.
Besides the non-verbal gestures that convey wordless messages through body language and facial expressions, there are lateral wordless signs of power, position, taste, and culture such as decoration and size of one’s office, dress, grooming, and so on.
An executive’s position of power may be gauged from the size and furnishings of his or her office. The quality of furniture adds to the impression created by the setting of the room.
In an office, the executive’s table is usually placed a few steps away from the door. This compels visitors or subordinates to walk up to him or her and feel his or her presence. Space is one of the factors involved in indicating the proximity of a relationship.
Clothes can define a person. It is one of the first things people notice. A person’s clothes—their texture, colour, design, style, and stitching—reveal their taste and aesthetic sense.
In business, it is important to pay attention to one’s clothes, especially at an interview or presentation. While one should look impressive, it is important not to be overdressed. Instead of highly fashionable and trendy designs and styles of suits, business executives should favour elegant, conventional styles. Clothes should not distract from the conversation.
In business, it is important to pay attention to one’s clothes, especially at an interview or presentation. While one should look impressive, it is important not to be overdressed.
In addition, one’s clothes should be neither too loose nor too tight. It is important to feel comfortable in one’s clothes, particularly in a high-stress situation such as an interview or presentation. Never try a new set of clothes for such occasions. New clothes may not sit comfortably, and they may distract the wearer from time to time. So, the first rule to follow is the principle of comfort.
Shoes should also be formal and in keeping with the colour of the clothes. Business bags, briefcases, handbags, or portfolios also indicate one’s status as a professional. An overstuffed handbag is not as impressive as a sleek briefcase or a smart handbag.
The personal space between two interacting persons indicates the level of formality, informality, intimacy, or distance between them. Business executives should observe the personal territory that each individual wishes to enjoy. Breaking into someone’s personal territory is likely to make him or her feel uncomfortable. When placed under such an intrusion, an important person is bound to show displeasure and signs of withdrawal from the interaction. Thus it is also important to understand the non-verbal message of displeasure and correct the space-relationship to have a fruitful interaction.
Creating a feeling of subordination and hierarchy adversely affects good working relationships and makes others uncomfortable.
Two interacting parties have a zone of invisible space between them, which is delineated by the nature of their relationship. A public figure for instance, would be used to more space around him or her, whereas one would maintain a smaller distance with a friend or relative.
Two interacting parties have a zone of invisible space between them, which is delineated by the nature of their relationship.
The public zone is the widest territory between the speaker and audience. A public speaker addresses a large gathering of persons. He or she needs to speak from a raised platform at a distance of 10 to 15 feet from the audience. The distance and elevation of the speaker provide visibility and a sense of isolation and superiority for the speaker. An example of the public zone is seen in the armed services, where it is normal practice for army officers to issue commands from a distance of 8 to 10 steps from the troops.
A social zone is the space maintained between people who are known to each other in a formal way. All business transactions are to be treated as social interactions. An executive should keep a distance of 4 to 10 feet from his or her audience. This space will ensure the comfort of the listeners, especially if they happen to be seniors, customers, or clients. At this distance, one can observe the body language and facial expressions of the other party closely. The social zone will be applicable for new colleagues at work, new acquaintances, and small group training situations.
The friendly zone is the distance observed at business parties, seminars, and other informal business gatherings and get-togethers. In such situations, people remain close to each other, but not close enough to jostle against each other. The gap maintained is nearly 1½ to 4 feet. At this distance, people can comfortably chat, laugh, and joke with each other without invading each other’s space.
The intimate zone is the distance between an individual and those he or she loves, such as close relatives and family members. This zone is not appropriate in a professional environment. In this zone, people tend to be near enough to whisper, about 6 to 18 inches. This nearness signals closeness among those involved in the conversation. However, this close distance is possible only when one is sure of the relationship because it is a zone in which one can touch the other person. In all other zones, including the friendly zone, one should not risk touching the other person. Touching can be strongly offensive.
The intimate zone is the distance between an individual and those he or she loves, such as close relatives and family members. This zone is not appropriate in a professional environment.
Within the intimate zone, there are, according to the level of intimacy, further zones/ bands. They are:
- Near intimate sphere (up to 6 inches): The zone for lovers, partners, children, family members
- Distant intimate sphere (6 inches to 18 inches): The zone for close friends, close colleagues and relatives
Both these spheres are sensitive. The difficulty lies in knowing how close is too close. When our intimate zone is intruded upon, we may feel embarrassed and, at times, threatened by the unwanted approach. We may have a “flight or fight” response, either confronting the intruder or removing ourselves from the situation. If our friendly zone is violated, we hide our discomfort by smiling or raising questions.
There are times when one cannot help having personal and intimate spaces violated, such as when travelling in a crowded compartment or entering a packed lift. In such situations, people are not usually resentful of others because body language indicates their helplessness. Moreover, to avoid discomfort to anyone, it is best to avoid eye contact with others in such situations and to try to stand straight to avoid physical contact with anyone.
Knowledge of non-verbal skills strengthens the communicative competence of professionals. However, these skills do not give one the power to control others. Understanding others’ body language does not mean having control over their responses or actions. It only means understanding them and their meaning better, which is helpful in fulfilling one’s purpose.
Knowledge of nonverbal skills strengthens the communicative competence of professionals. But these skills do not give one the power to control others.
One situation where understanding non-verbal communication can help a business executive is if he or she encounters power posturing by superiors or colleagues, which may lead to a sense of being subordinated or dominated. Consider a situation in which your boss, known for his arrogance and strictness, quietly enters your room from his side office and stands behind you. He keeps watching what you are working on for a few minutes. There is silence. You feel deeply nervous and upset. Finally, he says, “So, what’s on?” in a stern voice. In such a state of nervousness, your body talk should not reveal nervousness. Nervousness can indicate that you were doing something wrong. Blurting out “Nothing” in a shaky voice could imply that you were wasting your time. Instead, you should reply with confidence by standing up and facing him, greeting him, and calmly saying exactly what you have been doing.
Power posturing makes its victim feel upset and nervous. It is the deliberate use of body language and behaviour to make the target feel inferior.
- Power posturing makes its victim feel upset and nervous. It is the deliberate use of body language and behaviour to make the target feel inferior. The person responsible for it may shout, bully, not respond, interrupt, or pretend not to notice the target by continuing to work. Some interviewers choose to make interviewees nervous by using some of these gestures. For instance, when the interviewee asks permission to enter the room, they give a loud response, “Come in!” Upon entering, the interviewee stands before the interviewer, but he or she continues to work, completely ignoring the interviewee. After a few minutes, the interviewer asks the interviewee his or her name, but by this time the interviewee’s confidence is already drained.
- When encountering power posturing, it is best to remain calm and not feel hurt. The power posturer’s goal is to bully the victim into such a state of mind. It is important to remember that the rude behaviour is not personal, but is directed by the particular professional situation at hand. The victim should not begin questioning his or her worth and should avoid nervous gestures such as wiping the mouth, biting one’s nails, or looking lost in thought. Instead, the victim should analyse the technique used by the other person. It is difficult but possible to confront power posturing skillfully and allow yourself to remain comfortable.
- If the victim is sitting when confronted by power posturing, he or she should not sit at the edge of the seat. This will make him or her look nervous and ready to run away. Instead, for comfort’s sake, he or she could cross his or her legs, but not the arms at the same time. The “double cross” looks very defensive.
- The victim should use comforting gestures, such as touching the earlobes or the back of the neck or stroking the hair, skillfully. These acts restore confidence. But they should be done sparingly so that the bully does not take them as signs of nervousness or anxiety.
- The victim should maintain a reassuring standing posture. He or she can keep nervousness away by standing in a relaxed manner, with the arms down by his or her sides and feet apart by 9 to 10 inches. This posture gives a firm, balanced footing.
- The victim should be assertive. Most people tend to respond to an adverse situation by either fighting or fleeing. An alternative way of responding to unpleasant behaviour or negative situations is by being assertive. Assertiveness should not be taken to mean imposing one’s own will on others. It means understanding others’ points of view while putting one’s own point forward objectively. The victim should state what he or she thinks is right without being influenced by emotional considerations. In both fight and flight responses, one is affected by emotions. In being assertive, one should express facts as they are and say what should be said. The ultimate goal is to convince the other person that the assertion is correct.
Assertiveness should not be taken to mean imposing one’s own will on others.
To be assertive, one has to learn the skills of discussing and negotiating. However, negotiation is a time-consuming process and requires patience. Impatience makes one react aggressively and fight or run away (flight). Both these reactions—aggression and passivity—have negative effects. Aggression negatively affects the other party by hurting their feelings and provoking them to react with similar behaviour (anger). Passivity, on the other hand, is frustrating. It results in the feeling of failure and suggests that others take you for granted. Hence, the proper way to respond is to say what you want to say, with the firm conviction of being right.
Most verbal communication is laced with emotional overtones expressed through body movements, gestures, facial expressions, and modulations of voice. These non-verbal elements indicate what is intended but not verbalized by the speaker. Those who pay attention to these non-verbal gestures can find something additional in their understanding of the message; the ability to do so can be improved.
- Watch and read non-verbal clues:
- Interpret non-verbal clues in relation to the situation and culture accurately.
- Be careful about false non-verbal clues deliberately given to deceive you.
- Consider the non-verbal message, along with what the speaker’s words say, to know the total message.
- Respond with self-control, but do not react to non-verbal signals.
- Know your body language:
- Develop self-awareness by visualizing yourself as others see you and interpreting your body movements and gestures.
- Try to develop positive gestures and expressions to present yourself as you wish to be seen by others—as a confident, pleasing, well-meaning team worker.
- Do not give conflicting non-verbal cues.
- Convey sincerity through your tone of voice and facial expression.
- Use symbols, non-verbal cues (gestures, posture, and so on), intonation (volume, pace of delivery, and enunciation), expressions, and so on to reinforce and clarify the meaning of the message.
- Maintain eye contact with the audience.
- Smile genuinely.
- Avoid power posturing.
- Remember that the first impression is the most important and lasting impression. Hence, present yourself well to make a positive and lasting impression.
- Know about culture-specific body language: Though body language is a universal phenomenon, its meaning differs across cultures. Culture, like language, lays down rules for accepted social behaviour of people sharing a set of knowledge, beliefs, practices, and ideas. In present day multi-cultural workplaces, communication between persons of different nations and backgrounds requires an understanding of non-verbal acts such as eye contact, touch, and the sense of time in different cultures. People attach great significance to what they learn from non-verbal clues in addition to what they hear through words. Non-verbal clues are taken as true indicators of the speaker’s subconscious mind. They are, therefore, considered more reliable than words. Be careful not to use nonverbal clues that violate the cultural norms of other countries. Persons who travel and work abroad or in multi-cultural environments must realize that gestures may not mean the same thing they do in their own country. Some of those gestures might even be unwelcome or offensive.
Culture, like language, lays down rules for accepted social behaviour of people sharing a set of knowledge, beliefs, practices, and ideas.
- Know about touching and its context: Touching has limited communicative symbolism. It primarily conveys intimacy and closeness and also love. But its meaning is very closely linked to its context. Take the case of a doctor, who can touch a patient of the opposite sex when medically necessary, without offending the patient. In this context, the doctor’s body movements, touching, and so on are instrumental acts, performing certain tasks. They are not communicative body movements that reflect the doctor’s state of mind, emotions, or attitude. The context characterizes the nature of a body movement and determines whether it is a communicative or instrumental message.
Touching has limited communicative symbolism. It primarily conveys intimacy and closeness and also love. But the act of touching has its meaning in relation to its context.
Among lovers, parents, family members, and very close friends, touching is a normal gesture and goes unnoticed, but between strangers it is at once marked and may be objectionable. Even among those who share the zone of intimacy, only some parts of the body can be touched while communicating.
Understand silence as a mode of communication.
Touch usually communicates intimacy. However, which part of the body can be touched by whom and when depends upon the culture of the people involved. In western countries, men and women can walk freely holding each others’ hands in public. But in India, Pakistan, and other conservative countries, men and women generally do not do so in public.
To refer to themselves when speaking to someone, Americans may place one hand on their chest, whereas the Japanese may place a finger on their noses. But some psychologists consider nose touching to be a Freudian symbol of sexuality.
Like other emblematic body movements, eye contact is also culturally decoded in different ways. Eye contact is an important clue of attentive listening. In most western countries, it is considered polite to maintain eye contact when speaking to someone. On the other hand, in Japan and India, subordinates often do not make eye contact when speaking and listening to their supervisors. It is possible that an American may consider a Japanese person to be impolite if he or she keeps his or her eyes lowered during a conversation. In India, this may speak of humility, not shame.
Similarly, silence is communicative, but it may say different things to people of different cultures. For instance, in Japan, one may prefer to remain silent when one does not know much about the matter being discussed. In India, silence may indicate agreement. In the United States, silence may be seen as a sign of withdrawal and non-participation. An American usually looks for involvement and participation through raising questions or doubts.
Silence is communicative, but it may say different things to people of different cultures.
No one can make an exhaustive study of all possible cultural variations of every body movement. However, this is an attempt to highlight the importance of context and cultural differences in the interpretation of body movements and gestures.
In life and in business dealings, communication can sometimes break down. This can happen when one party is too keen to talk about its own point of view without regard for the other’s interest or understanding. Sometimes, discussions become heated and argumentative and reach no satisfactory conclusion. Or a meeting might become boring because the same point is being repeated by the speaker without involving other members in the discussion. Such communication breakdowns do happen. No one wants the discussion to fail, but communication often does fail, mainly, because of two reasons:
Learn how to build rapport.
- There is no rapport between the speaker and the listener.
- There is no balance between speaking and listening.
The purpose of all communication is to be useful and harmonious. Harmony is the key word in personal and business communication. Harmony between the ideas of the speaker and the listener is the final aim of communication. The first step in achieving this is establishing a rapport between the non-verbal languages of the speaker and listener, which is reflected in the pace of the conversation.
The purpose of all communication is to be useful and harmonious.
For a fruitful discussion or dialogue, both the speaker and the listener should be on the same wavelength. This means that the two persons should use similar body language, particularly speed, tone of voice, pitch, words, gestures, eye contact, and timing. The non-verbal language used by the speaker should reflect the body language of the other person. You may notice that the word listener is being avoided in this context. This is because communication usually fails when the speaker treats the other person only as a listener. The speaker should not spend most of the time speaking and forcing the other person to listen without an opportunity to respond. A guideline regarding how time should be split between speaking and listening is a 30/70 ratio, which means that one should spend approximately 30 per cent of the time speaking and 70 per cent listening.
Harmony is the key word in personal and business communication.
When one devotes 70 per cent of conversation time to listening, it gives one the time to study the body language of the other person and observe his or her state of mind and true feelings. To help the other person know how we perceive his or her response, our own body language should hold a mirror to his or her non-verbal language. This does not mean our body language should imitate the other person’s. It means that our behaviour, verbal and non-verbal, should reflect an understanding of the ideas and feelings of the other person. The two behaviours should be complementary.
If two people speak at different speeds, pitch, and volume, neither would be able to keep pace with the other. Consider the following example:
Sonali, a senior HR executive, sat slumped in her chair, disappointed. She had come to office very happy. She had prepared a long document on how to reduce the company’s costs without cutting the number of employees working in core departments of the organization. She had approached the general manager to discuss her proposed plan before formally submitting it for the management’s consideration.
When Sonali stood at the door of the general manager’s office and asked him, “Can I discuss something with you? I have a very exciting plan to show you regarding how to cut costs without reducing the number of employees. I think you will like it”, the general manager did not look at her. Instead, he kept on typing. After a few minutes of silence, without turning his gaze from the screen, he said, “I have to finish this report first. May be later.”
Communication in this case definitely broke down. There was no rapport or understanding between Sonali and the general manager. Understandably, Sonali was frustrated.
Now, suppose the general manager had responded to Sonali differently. If he had stopped writing, turned to Sonali, made eye contact, and said, “Wonderful! Let me first finish this report. We can meet in an hour. I will call you as soon as I am free. Will that be fine?” Sonali would have felt satisfied. Such a response would have matched her own enthusiasm and she would have felt valued for her ideas and validated as a colleague. This exchange would have satisfied both parties, as the general manager would have had time to complete his report undisturbed, and Sonali would know her proposal would be given attention. What is significant in this second response is that the GM shows appreciation for Sonali’s enthusiasm and her keenness to discuss her plan. He therefore uses the word “wonderful” to communicate his own excitement about the plan. He fixes a time to discuss it. He also lets Sonali know that the plan would be discussed without any disturbance when both parties were free. This exchange demonstrates a rapport between Sonali and the GM.
A simple non-verbal act in everyday life may make someone feel unhappy. For instance, if someone calls their supervisor’s cell phone to ask an urgent question twice, but does not get a response either time, he or she will be disappointed. The person may feel belittled because their supervisor knows their mobile number but choses to ignore it. The lack of rapport can be frustrating until the next time they communicate.
Some steps to establish rapport include:
- Develop the habit of talking less and listening and observing others more.
- Do not dominate the discussion.
- Maintain a natural pace of conversation.
- Recognize the pace of others and match it as closely as possible.
- Try to establish rapport during the first few minutes of the conversation.
- Do not introduce any controversial issues before creating this rapport.
- Avoid harsh criticism. Try to see reasons for differences of opinion and be tolerant of them.
- Focus on similarities of ideas.
These steps will help gradually overcome differences. Conflicting opinions will find resolution in the common understanding gained by both parties. In life, as in business, it is necessary to focus on those aspects of communication, verbal and non-verbal, that are shared.
- Non-verbal communication involves the sending of messages through body movements, gestures, facial expressions, and other wordless channels such as space, time, and personal appearance. It works in tandem with the messages communicated by words.
- Non-verbal communication basically includes two types of communication: (i) meta-communication and (ii) kinesic communication.
- Meta-communication is effected through changes in pitch, tone of voice, and choice of words. Kinesic communication is via movement of body parts in certain ways, not to perform certain tasks but to involuntarily communicate subconscious feelings along with whatever is expressed by the spoken words.
- Communicative movements symbolize meanings. To be successful in knowing what others mean when they say something, listeners should pay attention to the communicative meaning of the speaker’s body movements, facial expressions, eye contact, space, distance, and other non-verbal clues such as dress, hair style, and sense of time.
- To act and respond correctly in an intercultural context, one should know that different cultures interpret body language differently.
- Non-verbal communication is natural and spontaneous. One cannot control it, but it is possible to have good relationships with others by paying close attention to cues and clues that accompany words.
- Finally, it is also essential to develop skills of mutual understanding by creating rapport with the other person.
During the days of recession and growing unemployment, a job is considered a God-sent opportunity. There is not much choice in terms of place of work, position, or salary. The very first reaction is the decision to a job offer is to accept the opportunity of being employed.
Soon after completing his four-year program of B.E. (Civil) with a high first division, Sohan applied for the position of Assistant Engineer in response to an advertisement by the Building & Construction department of Everest Textile Mills. The mill was owned by the Kashiramkas, a well-known business family of Rajasthan. It was situated in Tipli, a semi-modernized village on the border of Haryana and Rajasthan. The village was connected only by roadways.
Nothing could dampen Sohan’s enthusiasm to attend the interview and, if selected, accept the offer. At the interview, Sohan was a bit surprised to see the members of the selection committee. They all looked old, conservative, and semi-literate. The chief estate supervisor, the chief engineer, the project manager, and the mill owner himself were all either diploma-holders or non-matriculates. Sohan was able to sense their uneasiness whenever he answered their questions in English.
The committee members were all undoubtedly highly experienced persons with practical knowledge of construction work, design, material quality, soil integrity, and so on. The chief estate supervisor asked very searching, technical questions on structure and load, but in Rajasthani. When Sohan answered in English, the interviewer kept nodding and looked towards the other panelists when Sohan finished talking. The behaviour of the chief engineer was similar. He framed a project in broken Hindi, with a Bengali accent, and kept on saying “yes yes”, and “thank you”, when Sohan discussed the answer; he too turned towards Mr Kashiramka when Sohan finished talking. Finally, Mr Kashiramka asked Sohan if he would be able to live in a village and adjust to the rural life of the countryside. Sohan told him that he was a person of simple living and would have little difficulty in adapting. Mr Kashiramka appreciated Sohan’s positive attitude and asked the chief engineer to show him the construction site.
Sohan toured the mill, which was spread out over a large distance, with hundreds of workers engaged in various sections. He was also taken to the Building & Construction department, which was located in a big, open area of the mill. It included the offices of the estate supervisor, the chief engineer, and four supervisors, the materials room, the fire brigade station, the power house, and the generator room.
The size of the mill and, especially, its Building & Construction department left Sohan highly impressed, and he decided to join the mill if offered the position. Before Sohan left, Mr Kashiramka told him about the close-knit relations of the workers. The mill was nearly 30 years old, and most of its employees were men who had been working there since its beginning. The workers had grown up together in the mill and had become family to each other. They had learnt their work through experience and looked down upon modern technical education and engineering degrees. They believed in practical knowledge and valued the expertise of their chief engineer, who was just a diploma-holder. They especially admired the insights and management skills of their estate supervisor, who could not even sign his name in English, but knew how to plan and get things done and helped the workers in times of need. During the conversation, Mr Kashiramka was intently studying Sohan, a newly graduated engineer hailing from an urban background. In fact, he would be the first university-educated engineer to join the homogeneous group of self-taught workers with no formal qualifications. On his first day, the workers looked at Sohan indifferently as he went around introducing himself as the new assistant engineer. Later, whenever he approached any group of workers and tried to start a conversation, they would remain tight-lipped. Gradually, he found that the supervisors would just shrug their shoulders whenever he suggested any change in their way of doing a particular job. Sohan was increasingly realizing that it was never easy to be accepted into a well-knit clan of people having their own idea on modern, technical education.
One day, in a meeting with contractors, supervisors, and senior workers from different sections, when Sohan wanted to support the plan of the chief engineer, the workers and the supervisor did not allow him to speak. When he tried to speak, they would interrupt and make distracting background noises. At the end of the meeting, the supervisor sitting next to Sohan deliberately stood up in such a way that Sohan’s cup of tea fell onto his lap and hot tea spilled all over him. The casual way in which the supervisor swung around and left the room gave the impression that he had not even seen what he had done.
Questions to Answer
- What conclusions do you think Sohan, the new assistant engineer, and the mill’s employees reached about each other on the basis of non-verbal clues?
- It seems that Mr Kashiramka, the owner of the mill, was not sure at the interview that Sohan, an urban, university-educated engineer, would be able to adjust to the rural mill work environment and culture. Was he right? What could be the reason for this skepticism?
- Sohan does not respond or react to the workers’ non-verbal expressions of their attitude towards him. Would his approach have been more effective if it were supported by some verbal communication?
- Could this situation be avoided? If no, why? If yes, how?
- “When you lack confidence in a situation, your body language will shout out to others that you are unsure of yourself.” Discuss some of the ways in which body language can betray lack of confidence.
- Discuss the difference between communicative and instrumental body movements. Give some examples of communicative gestures.
- What is “leakage” in non-verbal communication?
- How would you act when a power-posturing superior confronts you?
- Does our culture influence our interpretation of the behaviour of those from other cultures? Give examples to support your answer
- Explain the process of meta-communication as an intentional form of communication.
- Discuss the main classifications of non-verbal communication.
- Besides non-verbal gestures and facial expressions, there are lateral gestures, which communicate without using words. Discuss some of these lateral non-verbal gestures with examples.
- What does personal space signify in interpersonal communication at different levels? Discuss with examples.
- Reflect on the guidelines for developing communication skills and the extent to which you are able to interpret non-verbal clues accurately.
- How would you know if your communication with your colleagues is breaking down? Why do communication breakdowns happen?
- What is “rapport”? How would you establish rapport between yourself and your audience?
- How would you interpret silence during a discussion between a Japanese businessman and your Indian colleague?
- If a worker requests his supervisor for an increase in his salary and the supervisor remains silent, what should the worker gauge from his silence?
- Consider the modifying influence of culture on non-verbal modes of communicating feelings and relationships in similar social contexts.
- Interpret the following postures. What do they signify?
- Arms folded across the chest while discussing a problem with a friend
- Staring with half-closed eyes
- Pointing at someone with the index finger
- Leaning over the desk of a subordinate while talking to him
- Looking at the clock while someone is talking
From among the given options, choose the most appropriate answer:*
- Non-verbal communication does not involve:
- Meta-communication conveys a meaning that is:
- directly stated
- incompletely conveyed
- graphically communicated
- Grooming is a form of non-verbal communication that is:
- Positive gestures are body signals that make you look:
- Between a speaker and a listener, the closest zone of personal space possible is:
- The percentage of working time business executives spend in listening is:
- 30 to 70 per cent
- 40 to 50 per cent
- 40 to 60 per cent
- 20 to 80 per cent
- By choosing to speak from the floor instead of the dais, a speaker can show the audience a sense of:
- If a speaker winks after saying something, it suggests to the audience that the subject is:
- Paralanguage is a kind of action language that refers to:
- actual words
- body language
- personal space
- the tone of voice, speed of speech, and hesitation
- Giving non-verbal messages is:
- a dramatic skill