Amanda Gregory, LCPC, Symmetry Counseling Chicago

Have you ever said the right words, only to be completely misunderstood? The reason might be your nonverbal communication.

Here is an example:

You tell your partner, “I’m really sorry. My actions have caused you to feel hurt, disappointed, angry, and betrayed. I truly understand now, and I feel horrible.” Your words communicate self-accountability and empathy for your partner. These words could be the start of a productive conversation.

But what if, as you said those words, you were staring up at the ceiling, your face blank, your arms crossed, and your body angled away from your partner? Does the meaning of your words change?

It does. In fact, your words might now be perceived as having the opposite meaning of what you intended. Your partner may see you as disinterested, dishonest, and bored.

A large portion of our communication is nonverbal—conveyed through posture, gestures, and facial expressions. We can say all the right things, but if our nonverbal communication is not aligned to our words, our message is often lost.

Here are some tips to improve your nonverbal communication:

1. Be honest. Don’t say things that you don’t mean, as the lie will eventually show on your face, in your body, or even in your tone of voice. If you attempt to mask your true feelings, they will show through at some point. Nonverbal communication is most successful when it’s genuine.

2. Keep steady eye contact. You don’t need constant eye contact—this isn’t a staring contest. Good, steady eye contact—looking into their eyes more often than not and for considerable periods of time—communicates interest, honesty, and attentiveness. A lack of eye contact can communicate deceit, disinterest, and even disrespect.

3. Match your facial expressions to your emotional words. If you’re saying that you feel sad, look sad. If you’re discussing your anger, allow your face to express anger. Matching our words and our facial expressions communicates not only that we are serious about what we are saying but also that we are actually feeling those emotions. In turn, when someone is expressing their emotions and you feel empathetic, let them see your concern on your face. If you’re not sure if your outward expression matches what you feel, try using a mirror to gauge how your face appears when you experience a variety of emotions.

4. Be mindful of your posture. Open postures, such as turning toward the person who is speaking and leaning in, communicate engagement and attunement. Crossing your arms or legs, turning away from the speaker, and leaning back can communicate defensiveness. Open postures can help to increase your verbal vulnerability, which will help to deepen the conversation.

5. Match your partner’s open postures. If your partner is expressing open postures and you wish to connect with them, it’s best to match them. This matching should be subtle—you don’t want to appear as if you’re mimicking or mocking them. If they lean in, you can also lean in. If they uncross their arms, you can do the same. Do not match defensive postures.

6. Be aware of cultural differences. People from different cultures perceive nonverbal communication differently. In some cultures, steady eye contact is perceived as an insult, and expressing emotions openly on the face is intimidating or unacceptable. It’s important to learn about the cultural expectations of the individual with whom you are communicating. It’s also important to inform others about your cultural background.

You can say all the right things, but when your nonverbal communication doesn’t support your words, the message is lost. Are you ready to get help improving your nonverbal communication? Contact Symmetry Counseling today by calling our office at (312) 578-9990.