You say it best when you say nothing at all

You're speaking to your manager and she's telling you that you've done a good job on last week's project. Her lips are saying all of the right words but something - and you can't quite place what it is - is telling a different story here. Whether it's her tone, the gestures she's using, or her facial expression, her nonverbal communication seems a tad off. 

If you're a human on this planet, you will know that not all our communication happens verbally. Conversations are multilayered and people use a variety of mediums to share their message when they speak to you. In this guide, we'll take a look at what nonverbal communication is, the different forms that it takes, and how you can improve yours. 

What is nonverbal communication? 

First up, let's start with a nonverbal communication definition. Chances are, you've heard a rumour that less than 10% of communication is verbal. It's the type of blanket statistic that's brandished around whenever this subject matter rears its head. However, while there's some truth in that number, it doesn't quite capture the entire theory here. 

To best understand nonverbal communication, we need to take a trip back in time to the 1960s, when Professor Albert Mehrabian developed the now commonly-used theory. According to Mehrabian's Communication Theory, the following forms of communication make up a person's overall message when they're speaking to someone else: 

  • 7% of the message is in the words that are spoken

  • 38% of the message is paralinguistic, i.e. the way that the words are said

  • 55% of the message is in a person's facial expression

Whenever you're having a conversation with someone, the 7% - 38% - 55% rule applies. The two of you will be sharing a wealth of messages that never come out of your mouth. Learning to understand how nonverbal communication works - and using it to your advantage - could help you both in professional settings and in your personal life. 

Nonverbal communication skills examples 

So, what counts as nonverbal communication? When you're next having a good chinwag with your friend, co-worker, or boss, you can look out for certain signs. If you're unfamiliar with nonverbal communication skills, we've got you covered. Here are some to look for:  


How close do you stand to people when speaking to them? Proxemics refers to the physical space between you and another person when you're engaging in conversation. 

Let's face it, if someone stands right by you when you are chatting, you're going to think something is a little off. Similarly, if they stand halfway across the room and shout to you, you might be weirded out. Yes, there is a right level of proximity that none of us talk about.

As a golden rule, when you're having a face-to-face conversation with someone, you should stand between 18 inches and four feet apart. However, what feels right for you and the other person may depend on other factors. For example, if you have a close relationship with them, you may stand nearer. On the other hand, some cultures vary and you may find that the “norm” is to stand closer or further away from the other person. 


Some people let their hands do the talking. The gestures that people use can “​​reflect thoughts not yet found in speech.” Common examples of gestures include hand movements, pointing, waving, giving a thumbs up, and making signs with your fingers.

Often enough, gestures will be subtle. You might not notice the person doing them when you're first speaking. However, these slight movements can influence how you both feel about the conversation and the overriding message that's being conveyed between you. 

For example, if someone flicks their hand away from their head when telling you a story, you might interpret that as a somewhat sassy move. It gives colour and flair to the tale that they are telling you and, let's be honest, adds a sprinkle of drama into the mix. 

Facial expressions 

Of course, one of the most common nonverbal communication examples is that of facial expressions. If someone is telling you that they are happy about your promotion but they're frowning, it's safe to bet that they aren't being 100% truthful about their feelings. 

It's likely that you know how to read people's expressions. It's not merely about understanding what a smile or frown means - we're all well-versed in reading minute facial movements from people.  

Cultural differences, from country to country, may impact the meaning of each facial movement. However, some emotional expressions are universal. For example, no matter where you are in the world, a frown, anger, or a beaming smile is likely to look the same. It can be disconcerting when someone's face doesn't match their words - watch out for it. 


It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it. At least, that's what paralinguistics is all about. A person's tone, pitch, and how loud they choose to talk can speak volumes. 

When you're chatting with another person, you'll naturally notice these nonverbal communication signs. You might sense a certain “vibe” from the other person that has nothing to do with what they are saying to you. The best example of this is sarcasm. Although a person is saying one thing, their tone suggests the exact opposite of that. 

Tuning into paralinguistics - and noticing how the way that you speak impacts a conversation - is a powerful move. You can pack your words with emotion or say them in an overall monotone way. For instance, you may choose to speak with enthusiasm when you're interviewing for a job to let the interviewer know that you really do want it. 

Eye contact 

The eyes are the window to the soul. When you're speaking to someone else, you'll hold their gaze, blink, and look away. These nonverbal communication signs are subtle, but it pays to look out for them. You may be able to tell a lot about what the other person really thinks here. 

While there's no research to back it up, it's commonly believed that shifty eyes show that someone is not being wholly truthful or may be lying. On the other hand, people tend to think that someone holding eye contact steadily shows that they are telling the truth. 


Often enough, we communicate with touch as well as the words that we use. That is known as haptics. Human touch can show power and dominance over another person. However, it can also be a sign of affection. For instance, when you're comforting a friend or loved one who is upset, you may touch their arm gently or even give them a hug. 

Needless to say, haptics may be less important in the workplace, where it's not appropriate to touch your co-workers all the time. For that reason, you may not need to pay much attention to this form of nonverbal communication when it comes to your professional life.


The way that someone dresses says a lot about how they want to be perceived. A full suit and tie makes a different impression than a casual t-shirt. We all know that. When you're in the workplace, there's some truth in the statement that you should “dress for the job you want and not the job you have.” If you're hoping to get a promotion, keep that in mind. 

It's not all about fashion. There are other elements of your appearance that send out strong messages to people around you. Everything from your haircut to whether you wear makeup will have an impact on how people view you. Many people overlook this aspect of their nonverbal communication. However, your appearance can have a huge impact.

How to improve your nonverbal communication 

Now that you know all about the different types of nonverbal communication, let's talk about how to use this information to your advantage. It's not merely about noticing the cues (and acting in an appropriate way), but also about controlling yours, too. With that in mind, here are some approaches that you can try to improve your nonverbal communication. 

Respond, don't react 

Are you reactive when you're in conversations? Do you allow your emotions to rule you or do you take a beat between responding? If you tend to get hot-headed and reply with a side of irritation, sarcasm, snark, or anything else, take this as your sign to cut it out. 

If you want to get your nonverbal communication in check - and be in control - you need to learn to respond, not react. That means taking a second to digest the information that you're presented with before you decide what to say back to the other person. When you do that, you will be able to determine what messages you want to send them.

Work on your listening skills 

Listening is a key part of nonverbal communication. Whenever you're speaking to someone else, you need to make sure that you're listening to them and understanding them. If you're not, and you're simply focusing on your own point, you could be missing theirs. Listen to what they have to say, both with their words and nonverbally too. 

Be present in the moment 

Think about the last face-to-face conversation that you had. Where was your mind? Were you focusing all of your attention on the person in front of you? Or, like all too many of us, were you actually thinking about something else? When you fail to be present with another person, there's no way that you'll be able to pick up on their nonverbal communication. 

The next time that you're speaking to someone, remind yourself of the importance of being present. Bring your attention back to the room and the person standing before you. 

Open up your body language 

Of course, when you're in the workplace, you want to come across as approachable. One way that you can do this is by ensuring that you have open body language. There are plenty of ways that you can get started with this, but a few include unfolding your arms, turning your body to face the other person, and making eye contact with them as you speak. 

Notice incongruent nonverbal cues

If you're getting mixed messages, that means that some incongruent nonverbal cues are at play. For instance, a person may be telling you that everything is completely fine while they look away from you and fold their arms. Now, you don't have to be Freud to know that you've probably hurt their feelings or that something else is wrong with them. 

When you come up against these issues, ask for clarification. Yes, it may be hard to broach difficult subjects, but the person who is sending you mixed signals wants their message to be heard and understood. Dig deeper and ask them what's really going on. 

The takeaway 

Taking note of people's nonverbal communication - and improving yours - could have a significant impact on your career. Often enough, people overlook this vital part of everyday relationship building and simply “wing it.” While that may seem like the easiest way to go, there's a whole lot of power in being aware of the many messages that we share without speaking. In this guide, we've taken a look at some of the main signs that you should look for.

Mastering the art of nonverbal communication can help you to accelerate your career and reach your goals faster than before. If you're looking to get ahead, take a look at TopCV's expert CV writing services too. Armed with an SEO-optimised CV written by an expert, you could land more interviews and get hired faster than ever. Alternatively, send your CV for a free CV review to make sure you're application ready!

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