Nonverbal communication—such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice—is an important component of most human communications, including, of course, business communications. Most people use nonverbal signals when communicating. Even the blind use nonverbal communications to aid in both sending and receiving messages since nonverbal techniques includes such things as tone of voice and physical proximity. Understanding nonverbal communication techniques can help a small business owner to get a message across or successfully interpret a message received from another person. On the other hand, nonverbal communication can also send signals that interfere with the effective presentation or reception of messages. "Sometimes nonverbal messages contradict the verbal; often they express true feelings more accurately than the spoken or written language," Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt noted in their book Effective Business Communications. In fact, studies have shown that between 60 and 90 percent of a message's effect may come from nonverbal clues. Therefore, it is important for small business owners and managers to be aware of the nonverbal messages they send and to develop the skill of reading the nonverbal messages contained in the behavior of others. There are three main elements of nonverbal communication: appearance, body language, and sounds.
In oral forms of communication, the appearance of both the speaker and the surroundings are vital to the successful conveyance of a message. "Whether you are speaking to one person face to face or to a group in a meeting, personal appearance and the appearance of the surroundings convey nonverbal stimuli that affect attitudes—even emotions—toward the spoken words," according to Murphy and Hildebrandt. For example, a speaker's clothing, hairstyle, use of cosmetics, neatness, and stature may cause a listener to form impressions about her occupation, socioeconomic level, competence, etc. Similarly, such details of the surroundings as room size, furnishings, decorations, lighting, and windows can affect a listener's attitudes toward the speaker and the message being presented. The importance of nonverbal clues in surroundings can be seen in the desire of business managers to have a corner office with a view rather than a cubicle in a crowded work area.
Body language, and particularly facial expressions, can provide important information that may not be contained in the verbal portion of the communication. Facial expressions are especially helpful as they may show hidden emotions that contradict verbal statements. For example, an employee may deny having knowledge of a problem, but also have a fearful expression and glance around guiltily. Other forms of body language that may provide communication clues include posture and gestures. For example, a manager who puts his feet up on the desk may convey an impression of status and confidence, while an employee who leans forward to listen may convey interest. Gestures can add emphasis and improve understanding when used sparingly, but the continual use of gestures can distract listeners and convey nervousness.
Finally, the tone, rate, and volume of a speaker's voice can convey different meanings, as can sounds like laughing, throat clearing, or humming. It is also important to note that perfume or other odors contribute to a listener's impressions, as does physical contact between the speaker and the listener. Silence, or the lack of sound, is a form of nonverbal communication as well. Silence can communicate a lack of understanding or even hard feelings in a face-to-face discussion.
Irwin, David. Effective Business Communications. Thorogood Publishing, 2001.
Mintzberg, Henry. Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, May 2004.
Murphy, Herta A., and Herbert W. Hildebrandt. Effective Business Communications. Seventh Edition. McGraw-Hill, 1997.
"The Silent Factor." Denver Business Journal. 18 August 2000.
Strugatch, Warren. "More Than Words Can Say." LI Business News. 26 May 2000.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI