Principles of non-verbal behaviour and communication

While the key to success in both personal and professional relationships lies in the ability to communicate well, it is not the words that we use but our non-verbal cues or body language that speaks the loudest.


Research has consistently shown us that the use of non-verbal behaviour is a powerful asset in business, relationships, dating, and everyday life.

Actually, the rise of non-verbal and body language science happened during the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate and this was an enormous moment in history for the body language and non-verbal community, the reason is because this presidential debate happened right around the time when a lot of American households were getting television sets in their homes.

So about 50% of the population watched the debate on television and about 50% of the population listened to the debate on the radio. 

This is the background to that debate: On the day Nixon and Kennedy showed up to film, Kennedy was feeling calm and excited, he looked tanned and really healthy. Nixon said he was feeling a little off colour. During the interview because of the studio lights, Nixon was sweating profusely. So, he ended up looking less healthy, less young and vibrant than Kennedy, who is sitting up straight; he looked professional and focussed. What was interesting, everyone who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy won and everyone who listened on the radio to the debate was sure that Nixon won.

This was a really big moment because it was realised that there was a message in what their body language was saying, more than just the words the candidates were communicating.

The non-verbal cues in this debate were so influential that it cost Nixon the election. Even the voting polls revealed that more than half of all voters said it was the debates that influenced their choice.

Nixon admitted later in his book the importance of knowing how to use his own non-verbal behaviour. This moment was so powerful that for the next 16 years there were no presidential debates live on television.

This is mainly because the candidates did not understand the influence of their non-verbal message. Lyndon Johnson was too apprehensive and Nixon, realising the consequences, declined to debate on live television in both 1968 and 1972. Amazing to think that the non-verbal behaviour of some of the most intelligent men in the United States at that time, and who were candidates for the presidency, declined live air time on television because they realised that it was not just what they were saying that was being judged but a whole new different language that was sending off a more powerful message.

What is significant about the Nixon-Kennedy story is that negative and bad body language can make you lose, but positive and good body language can help you win.

The world is constantly communicating non-verbally, our body movements, our facial expressions, how we speak, how we show our emotions, how we dress, the possessions we favour, our conscious and unconscious behaviours and attitudes - even our environments are all communicating non-verbally. To use a 20th-century analogy, non-verbal intelligence is like a computer, it has huge capacity yet most of us only use a few of its applications, not realising there are many other valuable features that can assist us in communicating more effectively. However, by improving how we understand and use non-verbal communication, we can express what we really mean, connect better with others, and build stronger, more rewarding relationships. 

In both formal and casual communication, a lot of emphases is placed on words or what people say. 

However, non-verbal communication is equally, or perhaps even more, important. Body language says a lot, and many times, what it says has more impact than the words that are actually spoken aloud. It sounds hard to believe, but just 7% of how we communicate with each other is through words. Humans communicate primarily through body language. It has been that way throughout our evolutionary history, and it remains so today. Recent studies have concluded that body language makes up about 55% of our interaction, voice tone and pitch around 38%. So that means that 93% of our communication is deemed “nonverbal.”

Acknowledging the impact of non-verbal and body language, psychologists have long been studying a field of science called kinesics. This explores body language as a significant influence in communication, and an addition in human relationships. For example, for managers and leaders, or any professional person, understanding body language is particularly important. Non-verbal gestures and cues help them evaluate their employees and clients and assess the reactions or thoughts of people they interact with. 

Non-verbal’s are much more than the stereotypical 'crossed arms mean you look tense' or 'looking to the left means you are lying'. To end a myth both examples are incorrect, but they also reflect a limited view of the scope of non-verbal behaviour and communication.

Most people, under normal circumstances, are not consciously aware of their body language and non-verbal behaviour and as such, our body language does not lie when we are trying to cover up the truth.

This means that compared to words, body language tends to be a more accurate reflection of what someone is truly feeling or thinking. In cases when what a person says is different from what their body language says, trust the non-verbal message more than the actual words. 

How to read body language correctly is a skill that is developed through coaching, training, experience, practice, and careful observation. Being observant is especially important to learn how to correctly interpret non-verbal language.

When we talk about body language, we look at the subtle cues we send and receive to each other non-verbally. Many people want to know how to read body language. To get started, non-verbal can be broken down into a few different channels:

  • Facial expressions: Dr. Paul Ekman discovered seven universal micro expressions or short facial gestures every person makes when they feel a strong emotion. In body language, we are drawn to the facial area because this is one of the key area’s to understand someone’s emotions. The seven universal micro expressions are a significant part of non-verbal behaviour.
  • Body proxemics: Proxemics is a term for how we move and control our body movements in the space around us. We are continually observing how someone is moving; are they gesturing, are they leaning, are they moving closer to us or distancing themselves from us. Body movements give us information about preferences and nervousness. They are influential non-verbal cues.
  • Ornaments: The clothes we wear, the jewellery we wear, our hairstyles, are all extensions of our non-verbal. How we interact with our accessories is also telling. Is someone constantly playing with their watch or necklace? Do they constantly play with or touch their hair? These are all non-verbal cues we rarely think about.

There are actually two sides to reading non-verbal behaviour:

  • Decoding is being able to read other people’s non-verbal cues. It is how you decipher hidden emotions, information, and personality from someone’s non-verbal cues.
  • Encoding is your ability to send positive (or negative) non-verbal cues to other people. This is how you control your personal non-verbal behaviour and what impression you give and how you make people feel when they are with you.

This is a fascinating area of study and one that I believe has not been used to its full potential by business people and individuals. Only law enforcement and the field of forensics are currently making use of the most up-to-date research in this arena. This is why I believe becoming more skilled in non-verbal is a tremendous asset.

If you would like to learn how to communicate better in your personal and professional relationships, a coaching professional can help. Search Life Coach Directory to find someone you resonate with and to book an initial consultation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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