It is mystifying how people can say one thing with their words while saying something completely different non-verbally. In fact, we communicate much more with our body language and tone of voice in interpersonal settings than we ever could with words.
Struggling With Non-Verbal Communication
I was frustrated over this for a long time because the message I was trying to get across to others was not being grasped. When I wanted to encourage others, they saw it as expectations. When I was upset with someone, it wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The problem was my non-verbal communication was overpowering my words. My “encouraging” words were saying, “Well done,” but my body said I was in a hurry. The real message they got was, “There is more to do so I am hoping you kick into a higher gear.”
When I was upset about something, my facial muscles were too relaxed and my voice was complacent. Although my words were trying to express legitimate frustrations, my tone of voice was communicating, “This is not that big of a deal.” I had to learn to match my non-verbal communication with my words.
God’s Example For Communicating Through Action
John encourages us all to learn communicating through actions as a habit in our lives, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18) Jesus echoed this same principle when he said, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” (Matthew 5:37) In challenging people not to make oaths they weren’t going to keep, Jesus reminds us of how important it is to “make sure our actions are giving the same message as our words.”
It starts with applying a few general rules for body language in interpersonal interactions:
- A small audience likes small motions. Large movements in a small setting are intimidating and push people away.
- Leaning in expresses interest. Just don’t lean in too far or it will feel like you are interrogating.
- An open posture says you are open to the other’s thoughts. If you cross your arms and angle your body away, you are saying you are not that interested.
- Gentle physical contact gives reassurance in the right context. Family members and trusted friends will feel safer if you give a reassuring hug or high five although casual friends and acquaintances may interpret the same touch as manipulative.
- Casual eye contact gives others permission to share. Staring at someone is not going to create a comfortable environment but neither will looking past the person you are talking with. Natural eye contact has a rhythm. If you look another person in the eyes for a few seconds, then look away before engaging for another few seconds, you will be expressing natural, believable interest.
Your message is further enhanced by exercising a few general rules for choosing your tone of voice:
- Small audiences prefer soft tones. Screaming or talking loudly over coffee is guaranteed to be disruptive while “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1)
- Sincerity is expressed when the inflection in your voice drops at the end of a statement. When your voices rises, it feels like you are trying to persuade or sell rather than being a friend.
- We are more believable when the tone of voice is appropriate to the context. If I yelled at you in the midst of a fire trying to get you to safety, you would not approach me afterward and say, “You hurt my feelings when you yelled at me during the fire.” You would, however, rightly be offended if I yelled at you about what you order for lunch.
The message we will be remembered for is the one we broadcast without words. Keep these tips in mind the next time you engage in conversation with someone.