How Leaders Can Evaluate Their Nonverbal Communication

How Leaders Can Evaluate Their Nonverbal Communication

American poet William Carlos Williams once stated, “It’s not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.”

There in also lies a secret of effective leadership and management.

Much of the manner in which you communicate—to your reports, peers and bosses—is nonverbal. Some, extrapolating from studies by UCLA psychology professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian, say that 93 percent of all daily communication is nonverbal, but the reality is probably impossible to quantify. The important fact to recognize, as Blake Eastman of The Nonverbal Group has pointed out, is that “most communication is nonverbal.”

As a result, leaders and managers need to carefully manage their nonverbal communication. To help you do so, we discuss the eight most important nonverbal cues below, and provide questions that allow you to self-evaluate your level of effectiveness with each cue.

  1. Eye Contact: For most people, the visual sense is dominant, and thus is critical in nonverbal communication. To evaluate yourself, ask, “Is this sense of communication missing, too intense, or, just right?”
  2. Facial expression: Universal facial expressions signal anger, fear, sadness, joy, and disgust, research by San Francisco State University psychology professor David Matsumoto shows. Ask yourself, “What is the face I show? Is it mask-like and unexpressive, or emotionally present and filled with interest?”
  3. Tone of voice: The sound of your voice conveys your moment-to-moment emotional experience. Ask yourself, “What is the resonant sound of my voice? Does my voice project warmth, confidence, and delight, or is it strained and blocked?”
  4. Posture: Your posture—including the pose, stance, and bearing of the way you sit, slouch, stand, lean, bend, hold, and move your body in space—affects the ways people perceive you. This is often referred to as your “body language”. Ask yourself, “Does my body look stiff and immobile, or relaxed? Are my shoulders tense and raised, or slightly sloped? Is my abdomen tight, or is there a little roundness to my belly that indicates my breathing is relaxed?”
  5. Touch: Finger pressure, grip, and hugs should feel good to you and the other person. What “feels good” is relative. Some prefer strong pressure; other prefer light pressure. Ask yourself, “Do I know the difference between what I like and what others like? Am I sensitive to that difference, so that my actions are comfortable for others?”
  6. Intensity: Intensity is a reflection of how much energy you project. Again, this has as much to do with what feels good to the other person as what you personally prefer. Ask yourself, “Am I flat or so cool that I seem disinterested, or am I over the top and melodramatic?”
  7. Timing and pace: Timing and pace impact your ability to be a good listener and communicate interest and involvement. Ask yourself, “What happens when someone I care about makes an important statement? Does my response—not necessarily verbal—come too quickly or too slowly? Is there an easy flow of information back and forth?”
  8. Sounds that convey understanding: Sounds such as “ahhh,” “ummm,” and “ohhh” uttered with congruent eye and facial gestures communicate understanding and emotional connection. More than words, these sounds are the language of interest, understanding, and compassion. Ask yourself, “Do I indicate with sincere utterances that I am attentive to the other person?”

Together, these nonverbal signals communicate your interest and investment in others. Critically important: these elements are experienced much more intensely in the pauses between words. Interruptions in the flow of language offer us our best opportunities for emotional communication. How well you are able to navigate pauses and send these signals will depend on your ability to manage stress and experience your own emotions, as well as those of the other person.

Are you interested in improving your nonverbal communication but struggling to evaluate yourself? Ask a trusted peer for their feedback on what you do well and where you can improve, or to partner together to work on each other’s nonverbal communication.

The tips in this post are adapted from Chapter 6 of “Solving Employee Performance Problems,” co-written by Connect the Dots’ Brenda Hampel and Erika Lamont.