Communication without words

It’s the art of non-verbal speaking and we are all experts in the sense that we do it naturally and unconsciously, transmitting information through gesture, posture, mimicry, eye contact, touch, volume and tone. It’s a vital part of the social awareness element of emotional intelligence, crucial for good leadership. It’s sometimes called ‘manual language’, and it adds nuance to communication, strengthening, contradicting, informing…

Ask yourself: how well do you pick up on non-verbal communication, body language and other unspoken cues?

The 93% myth

Before we go any further, let’s just address the non-verbal elephant in the room. A much-quoted (and misunderstood) statistic comes from Albert Mehrabian’s 1960s research at UCLA. This limited but indicative study suggested that messages break down as follows…

  • the words – 7%
  • the way the words are said – 38% (e.g. tone/pitch of voice, phrasing, etc.)
  • the body language – 55% (e.g. eye contact, facial expression, etc.)

…leaving us with the simplistic interpretation that body language and tone of voice are far more important than words (93% of the message). Not true. In fact, the 7% that consists of words contain the core message. But the way the message is delivered can reveal essential information, such as the emotions and attitudes behind the words used, either confirming or contradicting them. What Mehrabian’s research showed is that all three interrelated elements can impact on a message’s meaning.

Recognising non-verbal communication

Depending on who you read, there are a number of different types of non-verbal communication. An inclusive range of categories comes from Judee Burgoon, professor of Communication, Family Studies and Human Development at the University of Arizona.

  1. Kinesics – body movements, including facial expressions, gestures and eye contact.
  2. Vocalics or paralanguage – including volume, rate, pitch, and timbre.
  3. Personal appearance – including clothes, grooming, cleanliness, etc.
  4. Physical environment – the physical context and surroundings of the message.
  5. Proxemics – personal space and how its use can affect understanding.
  6. Haptics – communication via touch (e.g. consider the variations in handshakes), often strong cultural variations.
  7. Chronemics – how time and timing influences the message, including punctuality, patience and the impact of time on the dynamics of an interaction.

The impact of non-verbal communication – what can it mean?

The above types of communication can be used to:

  • Repeat and strengthen the message contained in the words. To take a simple example, a ‘yes’ with a nod is more emphatic than just a ‘yes’, or physically banging the table for emphasis can dramatically underline a point.
  • Contradict the words’ message, perhaps by an inconsistent tone of voice or facial expression.
  • Avoid the need for words entirely. The right look or physical gesture can be expressive enough to get the message across.
  • Manage the conversation, using gestures , signals or non-verbal vocalisations to indicate and guide conversational roles (for example, a pause and an expectant look might indicate it’s the other person’s turn to speak).

If all that sounds over-complicated then remember that the best thing about non-verbal communication is that (within our own culture, at least) we generally understand it, we are fluent. However, it might be a language you understand but how well you speak it? That can be a different question. The first step is to spot yourself using the various types and ask yourself, did that have the effect I wanted?


If you’re interested in knowing more about non-verbal communication and how to use it, check out our give us a call on 01582 463464 – we’re here to help!

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