How can you improve your nonverbal communication skills? The following tips can help you learn to read the nonverbal signals of other people and enhance your own ability to communicate effectively.
Pay Attention to Nonverbal Signals
People can communicate information in numerous ways, so pay attention to things like eye contact, gestures, posture, body movements, and tone of voice. All of these signals can convey important information that is not put into words.
By paying closer attention to other people’s unspoken behaviors, you will improve your own ability to communicate nonverbally.
Look for Incongruent Behaviors
If someone’s words do not match their nonverbal behaviors, you should pay careful attention. For example, someone might tell you they are happy while frowning and staring at the ground.
When words fail to match up with nonverbal signals, people tend to ignore what has been said and focus instead on unspoken expressions of moods, thoughts, and emotions. So when someone says one thing but their body language suggests something else, it can be useful to pay extra attention to those subtle nonverbal cues.
Focus on Tone of Voice
Your tone of voice can convey a wealth of information, ranging from enthusiasm to disinterest to anger. Tone can be an effective way to amplify your message.
Start noticing how your tone of voice affects how others respond to you and try using your tone to emphasize ideas that you want to communicate.
For example, if you want to show genuine interest in something, express your enthusiasm by using an animated tone of voice. Such signals not only convey your feelings about a topic; they can also help generate interest in the people listening to you speak.
Use Good Eye Contact
Good eye contact is another essential nonverbal communication skill. When people fail to look others in the eye, it can seem as if they are evading or trying to hide something. On the other hand, too much eye contact can seem confrontational or intimidating.
While eye contact is an important part of communication, it’s important to remember that good eye contact does not mean staring fixedly into someone’s eyes. How can you tell how much eye contact is appropriate?1
Some communication experts recommend intervals of eye contact lasting four to five seconds. Effective eye contact should feel natural and comfortable for both you and the person with whom you are speaking.
If you are confused about another person’s nonverbal signals, don’t be afraid to ask questions. A good idea is to repeat back your interpretation of what has been said and ask for clarification. Some examples of this:
- “So what you are saying is that…”
- “Do you mean that we should…”
- “What I’m hearing is that you think…”
Sometimes simply asking such questions can lend a great deal of clarity to a situation.
For example, a person might be giving off certain nonverbal signals because they have something else on their mind. By inquiring further into their message and intent, you might get a better idea of what they are really trying to say.2
Use Signals to Add Meaning
Remember that verbal and nonverbal communication work together to convey a message. You can improve your spoken communication by using body language that reinforces and supports what you are saying. This can be especially useful when making presentations or when speaking to a large group of people.
For example, if your goal is to appear confident and prepared during a presentation, you will want to focus on sending nonverbal signals that ensure that others see you as self-assured and capable. You can strike a self-confident stance by:
- Standing firmly in one place
- Keeping your shoulders back
- Keeping your weight balanced on both feet
Look at Signals as a Whole
Another important part of good nonverbal communication skills involves being able to take a more holistic approach to what a person is communicating. A single gesture can mean any number of things, or maybe even nothing at all.3
The key to accurately reading nonverbal behavior is to look for groups of signals that reinforce a common point. If you place too much emphasis on just one signal out of many, you might come to an inaccurate conclusion about what a person is trying to say.
Consider the Context
When you are communicating with others, always consider the situation and the context in which the communication occurs. Some situations require more formal behaviors that might be interpreted very differently in any other setting.
Consider whether or not nonverbal behaviors are appropriate for the context. If you are trying to improve your own nonverbal communication, concentrate on ways to make your signals match the level of formality necessitated by the situation.
For example, the body language and nonverbal communication you utilize at work are probably very different from the sort of signals you would send on a casual Friday night out with friends. Strive to match your nonverbal signals to the situation to ensure that you are conveying the message you really want to send.4
Be Aware That Signals Can be Misread
According to some, a firm handshake indicates a strong personality while a weak handshake is taken as a lack of fortitude. This example illustrates an important point about the possibility of misreading nonverbal signals. A weak handshake might actually indicate something else entirely, such as arthritis.
Always remember to look for groups of behavior. A person’s overall demeanor is far more telling than a single gesture viewed in isolation.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Some people just seem to have a knack for using nonverbal communication effectively and correctly interpreting signals from others. These people are often described as being able to “read people.”5
In reality, nonverbal communication is a skill you can improve. You can build this skill by paying careful attention to nonverbal behavior and practicing different types of nonverbal communication with others.
By noticing nonverbal behavior and practicing your own skills, you can dramatically improve your communication abilities.
A Word From Verywell
Nonverbal communication skills are essential and can make it easier to convey your point and to read what others are trying to tell you. Some people seem to come by these skills quite naturally, but anyone can improve