From the lips of famed management guru Peter F. Drucker: The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
How much of communication is actualized using words? According to behavioral experts, it depends. Numerous sources identify 90% of communication as non-verbal, other sources range from 30% upward. Whatever the percentage, non-verbal communication is critical to understanding human behavior. Comprehension of body language provides insight to how a person feels despite their verbal responses. Specific non-verbal behaviors include posture, facial expressions, head and limb placement, movement, and gestures. Although a significant aspect of interpreting non-verbal behavior is intuitive, there is a plethora of data supporting common interpretation of behavior during communication.
Although eye contact is historically deemed an indicator of honesty or deceit, current literature disagrees [Liar Liar]. Below we offer a few common interpretive insights.
Posture: This is highly indicative of a person’s emotional state and accurately reflects feelings. Open posture, keeping your main carriage erect and open, indicates a willingness to communicate, and comfort as well. Closed posture, hiding the main carriage beneath hunched arms/shoulders, can indicate anxiety or distress. It is important to note, especially for researchers, that your posture can strongly influence improvement in another person’s ease and comfort.
Personal space: Someone leaning closer can be interpreted as a sign of comfort and trust. If one creates distance or suddenly leans back in reaction to a question or statement, it can signal social withdraw, concern about disclosure, or the topic struck a nerve that takes them aback.
A tilting head: When someone tilts their head to a strong degree it can signal sympathy, a desire to understand better, or if accompanied with a smile, flirtation and/or a sign of jest.
Crossed arms: If someone crosses their arms during a conversation they close themselves off to any social influence. This can mean they are protecting themselves emotionally or concluding emotional sharing. Be sure the temperature is not an influencer – it could just mean they are cold.
Copy cats: When someone mirrors your behavior, consider it a compliment. It is likely they admire or respect you, are attempting to become relationally closer, or gain your approval. If you find yourself mirroring the behavior of another, perhaps you share their mind set or mutually agree on the topic being discussed.
It is important to note that non-verbal cues are distinct by culture. For example, in America, the amount of personal space one places between themselves and another can be an indicator of comfort and engagement level; likewise, direct eye contact is often associated with confidence. In some Eastern cultures personal space may be interpreted differently dependent upon gender, marital status, or position in the culture, and direct eye contact can be considered disrespectful.
Recognizing when body language conflicts with what is verbally expressed presents unique opportunities to understand emotions that are not obvious to the communicator. This is most often where golden nuggets of understanding behavior are discovered. Conflicting body language to words can be slight or quite obvious. The interpretation of body language is as critical as identifying conflicts. As you practice reading non-verbal behavior you will find the skill is not only essential for research, but also important in all facets of life. Understanding when words genuinely represent feelings, and importantly when they do not, can deepen relationships and reveal honesty not experienced otherwise: What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson