Have you ever met a dog that just doesn’t bark? We’re so used to dogs barking, growling, and howling to communicate that it seems odd to imagine a dog being silent.
But this is exactly how my pet dog, Buddy, is—he never barks. But he still manages to tell us what he wants. Whether he is hungry, tired, excited, happy, or even bored, he communicates it all without a single sound. He has mastered the art of nonverbal communication which goes beyond simply wagging his tail playfully like other dogs.
When he is hungry, Buddy sits silently in front of the kitchen so that we are forced to notice him. When my parents and I are talking to one another or are busy on our phones, he gets our attention by putting his paw on our leg or lap. He gently head-butts us when he wants belly rubs.
And the silent reproachful looks when we delay giving him his food or taking him for his walk are better than any human’s! He sits up, looks straight at you with sorrow in his eyes, and then drops his head to the floor with a deep sigh.
We don’t pay enough attention to nonverbal communication, but it is an important aspect of communication. We can convey a world of emotions simply through our expressions, gestures, and body language. Some behavioral scientists believe that up to 70% of the communication in a conversation is through nonverbal cues.
You can learn a lot about nonverbal communication by observing animals. British naturalist Charles Darwin was one of the first to study how animals communicate without the verbal skills that humans possess in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and then in On The Origin of Species. According to him, animals and humans express their inner feelings through their facial expressions and body language. Both use facial muscles to express emotions: for instance, they purse their lips in concentration or their eyes contract when they’re angry. Or they use certain gestures when they are sad, happy, or afraid. For example, they might close their eyes or shake their heads and shudder when they see something unpleasant. It’s a form of instinctive nonverbal communication that we aren’t always conscious of.
More recently, psychologists like Paul Ekman and primatologists like Jane Goodall explored the universality of nonverbal communication in humans and animals. Goodall found that when chimpanzees are frightened, for instance, they grin in fear. This is similar to the way in which humans smile nervously when they are stressed.
Nonverbal communication is an important aspect of Communication and Collaboration—two key Harappa Habits for success in the workplace. Working on your nonverbal communication will help you manage relationships at work, expand your network, improve teamwork, decode others, speak effectively and listen actively, and navigate the workplace.
Most of us are currently working from home amid a lockdown, and face-to-face interactions with our colleagues have been replaced with phone and video calls. This makes it the perfect time for you to polish your nonverbal communication skills, which will stand you in good stead when normal office work resumes.
Here are some nonverbal communication lessons I have learned from my silent dog that you can apply to improve your workplace interactions:
1. Your posture conveys your mood
Be mindful of your posture in different situations: how you sit or stand in the workplace. Your posture in meetings, when making a presentation, or during a heated conversation says a lot about your confidence, interest, and energy levels. Practice sitting up straighter, not hunching your shoulders, and not shuffling your feet when you walk.
2. Maintain eye contact during interactions
Maintaining eye contact with someone is a powerful gesture as it shows you are fully in tune with them and are receptive to them. Evading eye contact also speaks volumes, especially during critical conversations. Try making eye contact with individual members of your audience the next time you make a presentation or address a large group.
3. Facial expressions can be used in a purposeful way
Although our expressions tend to be involuntary, it is possible to train yourself to use and avoid certain expressions. Not all our expressions are suitable for the workplace. Rolling your eyes, frowning, fidgeting, yawning, and laughing loudly are natural human responses, but they should be tempered when interacting with co-workers.
4. Silence can speak volumes
Not everything has to be said in words. Silence can speak volumes, especially when you are upset or annoyed. Giving a colleague the silent treatment is not a good idea, but if you tend to use harsh words or raise your voice to convey your displeasure, consider the power of silence the next time you are upset or annoyed. People will pick up any nonverbal cues through your facial expressions, body language, and gestures.
5. Learn to read people’s unique nonverbal cues
There are subtle but significant differences in how different people express their thoughts and emotions using nonverbal cues. If you pay close attention to your colleagues, you will be able to pick up on the unique facial expressions, body language, and tone they use in different situations. Decoding these cues correctly will help you understand what they are thinking or feeling, and prepare a response accordingly.
Visualize the following three people—your boss, a colleague you are comfortable with, and a colleague you have had friction with. Try to picture their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice when they are upset, distracted, pleased, irritated, and impatient. Do you see the differences in their nonverbal cues? You can sharpen this skill during the lockdown by observing your family’s nonverbal cues, and by carefully watching your colleagues on video calls to note the changes in their expressions.
6. Make it a habit to express positive emotions
If you think positive thoughts in the workplace and feel optimistic and energized, these emotions will certainly be communicated to others through your nonverbal cues. Conveying positivity in this way makes everyone feel better, and makes people want to be around you. Studies show that people tend to mirror the body language of those they are interacting with. So if you smile when you speak, your listener will also smile back at you.
When you start paying closer attention to the nonverbal cues you give others, you’ll find yourself becoming more aware of and receptive to others' nonverbal cues. Use remote working as an opportunity to work on your own nonverbal communication skills. Who knows, you may just become a master nonverbal communicator to rival my dog.
Tanvi Khemani is Specialist, Curriculum, at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and enjoys eating street side chaat and writing fiction.
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