How you say something is often more powerful than what you say. How does your nonverbal communication work for you? Your tone of voice and facial expression tell people more than your words. Tone, inflection and facial expressions account for 93 percent of your message. The actual words only account for 7 percent.
You don’t need a college education or a big vocabulary to communicate assertively and make yourself understood. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Your nonverbal communication can either enhance and support what your words say, or detract, or even oppose what you are saying.
The key components of nonverbal communication are:
• Eye contact. The eyes are an important part of nonverbal communication. Speakers who stare off into space or keep their eyes glued to their feet do not inspire much attention or confidence. Some people have a problem with powerful eye contact.
To communicate more confidence and polish, keep your head up and vary the direction of your gaze. Eye contact emphasizes a point and establishes trust.
In conversation, glance at the other person for a second and then glance away to show you are listening and not just staring. Continuously looking at another person makes him or her uncomfortable. When speaking, a relaxed and steady gaze, occasionally looking away, shows interest in and respect for the other person and enhances your message. Because we tend to maintain more eye contact with people we think accept and support us, avoiding eye contact indicates low self-esteem. With conscious effort, you can improve your eye contact. Be aware of your eyes as you talk with others and gradually attempt to optimize your eye contact in conversation.
• Body posture. How you carry yourself sends a double nonverbal message. It reveals what you think about yourself and what you think about your listener. Slouching conveys an attitude of indifference to the world. Conversely, if you’re rigid and uptight, you communicate anxiety and insecurity. These are two extremes. Try for a happy medium: poised and relaxed, alert but not tense, even when you may not really feel that way. Self-awareness is the secret. When you are aware of how you look, you can obtain the look you want to send to the listener.
Researcher John Malloy found that the most effective stance for both men and women is a straight, almost military spine, head erect, with feet straight and slightly spread apart and arms at the side with fingers lightly cupped.
Have you ever noticed the number of people who talk with their bodies turned away from others? People who sit side-by-side often turn only their heads toward one another while talking. Next time you are in this situation, notice how much more personal the conversation gets with a slight turn of your body—say 30 degrees—toward the other person. Relative “power” in an encounter may be emphasized by standing or sitting. If you need to stand up for yourself, do just that—stand up. An erect posture lends additional assertiveness to your message. A slumped, passive stance gives the other person an immediate advantage, as does any tendency on your part to lean or move away.
• Distance/physical contact. The distance you maintain from other people has a direct impact upon communication. Standing or sitting closely together and touching suggests intimacy in a relationship unless the person is in crowded or very cramped quarters. The typical discomfort most of us feel when there are too many people in an elevator illustrates how coming too close may offend others.
Some people try to dominate others through such territorial moves. Unless you are aware of the significance of such actions, you may unconsciously respond with submissive behavior. If you find yourself in the presence of someone who uses such tactics, hold your ground. Signal your own sense of power in a number of ways, including:
- Rise, move casually around your office during a conversation.
- Excuse yourself on the pretext of keeping an appointment.
- Set up a barrier to screen visitors from your office or desk.
- Assume the same familiarity with peers by dropping by their offices.
- Be assertive. Move toward the person.
• Facial expressions. Have you ever seen someone trying to express anger while smiling or laughing? It just doesn’t work. Effective communication requires facial expressions that agree with what is being said.
Let your face say the same thing as your words. Nothing is warmer than a sincere smile, but never force a smile. The listener will know it’s phony. If you say something amusing with a smile, your listener will nearly always smile along with you. Even in a serious conversation, the smile is essential. If everything you say is serious, there is no variety, no contrast.
• Gestures. Your gestures are as important as your facial expressions. While enthusiastic gesturing is a somewhat culturally related behavior, a relaxed use of gestures adds depth and power to your messages. Uninhibited movement suggests openness, self-confidence and spontaneity on the speaker’s part. Effective gestures are either descriptive or emphatic. Descriptive gestures illustrate your point, while emphatic gestures emphasize or underscore specific points in your speech.
• Vocal tone, inflection, volume. Your voice is one of your most vital body tools in communication. Words spoken through clenched teeth in anger offer an entirely different message than when the same words are shouted with joy or whispered in fear. A level, well-modulated conversational tone is persuasive without being intimidating. A whispered monotone makes it hard to convince others that you mean business. Consider the three dimensions of your voice:
- Tone. Is your tone raspy, whiny, soft, angry? Women tend to have a higher pitched and softer speaking voice than men. A lower pitched voice generally is more effective.
- Inflection. Do you emphasize certain syllables as in a question, speak in a monotone or with a sing-song effect? Swings in emotion can be shown with variations in pitch.
- Volume. Do you try to gain attention by whispering, or do you overpower others with loudness? Or is it difficult for you to shout even when you want to? Your voice is a powerful tool in self-expression. Control and use it effectively. Practice with a recorder until you achieve a style you like. Allow yourself time for changes to become natural. Use the recorder regularly to check your progress.
• Fluency. A smooth flow of speech helps get your point across in any type of conversation. It is not necessary to talk rapidly for an extended period. If your speech is interrupted with long hesitations, your listeners will become bored and sense that you are unsure of yourself. Clear and slow comments are more easily understood and powerful than rapid speech that is erratic.
• Timing. In general, spontaneity of expression is the goal. Hesitation diminishes the effectiveness of your message. If a problem arises and you aren’t able to express yourself adequately at the time, it is usually worthwhile to find the person later and talk with him about what is on your mind. Effective communication helps keep your relationships open and accurately conveys your feelings.
• Clothing. What you wear and how you wear it send powerful signals. Your clothing and accessories are a reflection of your status, who you think you are, and what you want others to think of you. Sometimes this message can be lost or misinterpreted. Clothing revolves around two concerns: how to fit in and how to stand out. The first rule about clothes, accessories and hairstyle is that there are no rules. It’s up to you. If you’re comfortable with yourself, then you’ll be comfortable with whatever you wear. Trying to make yourself look younger or older than you are, or trying to look like someone else are the best ways to make yourself uncomfortable. Avoid extremes unless you’re in the business of attracting attention to yourself. Don’t be swept away by the latest fashion even if a lot of other people are wearing the same thing. Wear styles and colors that make you look your best.
Please yourself first. But unless you live in a cave, you should recognize that at some times and in some places on some occasions other people’s opinion of the way you look and dress are just as important, maybe even more important, than your own preferences. A CEO of a major cosmetic company wears his high school softball cap in the privacy of his office, but not when he meets with the board of directors. A navy suit is appropriate for a business lunch but would be out of place at a backyard barbecue. You don’t always want to look like, everyone else. Use your imagination and do a little something to set yourself apart. Your clothing is often the first thing people notice about you. When you care enough to present yourself at your best, people will care about you. If you’re really not sure what makes you look your best, take the time and effort to find out. Solicit advice from friends and professionals.
The confident communicator develops an effective personal style. She exercises good eye contact and facial expression. She projects an assertive stance. By using appropriate hand and arm gestures, she conveys a feeling of openness and ease. Her personal style adds to her confidence. The bottom line is that the powerful communicator develops an assertive aura which frees her from fumbling over every word.
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