How to Communicate with Diplomacy and Tact Using Nonverbal Communication

In talking about nonverbal communication, many people use the popular term "body language," This is, however, an inaccurate representation of what nonverbal communication actually is, for many reasons we won't go into here. Suffice it to say that we are intentionally using the term nonverbal communication, because it is accurate for explaining all of the various areas that non-linguistic communication covers.

What is nonverbal communication? We can say it is communication behaviors and characteristics that convey meaning without the use of words. As this article will highlight, there are several areas, or channels, of nonverbal communication. Some are more relevant to communicating with diplomacy and tact than others, and in the interest of space, it is those that we will focus on here.

It's difficult to imagine life without the use of nonverbal communication. When we think about the flatness of text messages without emoticons, we are getting close. But in regular life, nonverbal communication comprises as much as 93 percent of our communication. Perhaps it is the context that determines how much of our communication is nonverbal and how much of it is linguistic. For example, if you're at a football game, your nonverbal communication is going to be closer to 100 percent of your communication, but if you're in a class, you will rely on nonverbal communication to a much lesser degree than you will rely on the verbal channel.

Characteristics of nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication has five distinct characteristics that help us better understand its role, purpose, and use. These characteristics are:

1. Nonverbal communication is present in most interpersonal communication.

2. Nonverbal communication often conveys more information than verbal communication.

3. Nonverbal communication is usually believed over verbal communication.

4. Nonverbal communication is the primary means of communicating emotion.

5. Nonverbal communication is meta-communicative.

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We do not have the space in this article to discuss each of these characteristics in depth, but we will touch on each briefly for better understanding.

That nonverbal communication is present in most interpersonal communication is easy to understand if you think about it for a minute. Imagine a conversation with a robot, for example. There are no vocal variations, no gestures, no facial expressions, or anything else to help you understand what's going on behind the robot's words. In fact, we rely on these nonverbal cues tremendously to help us understand what someone else is actually trying to say, and to help get our own messages across better.

Nonverbal communication conveys as much as 93 percent of our overall message, leaving just 7 percent for the verbal channel. Not all researchers agree with this assessment; some argue that nonverbal communication is as low as 65 percent of our total communication. In either case, however, nonverbal communication is relied upon more heavily than verbal cues. Sometimes, when using language isn't an option, we use gestures and facial expressions to convey our message. Other times, when someone isn't understanding the words that we are choosing, we may give them some extra vocal emphasis accompanied facial expressions, body movements, and gestures that support what we are trying to say. Any way you look at it, nonverbal communication is extremely important to our overall communication.

Clues to someone's attempted deception can often be identified in their nonverbal communication, as opposed to the words that they use. When someone is lying to you, it's much easier for them to get away with that if they leave the lie written on a piece of paper, rather than deliver it to you face-to-face. In face-to-face contact, there are all kinds of nonverbal communication cues that can indicate someone's attempted deception. Deceivers know this, as well as detectors. But the degree to which we rely on nonverbal communication cues to indicate someone's truth extend beyond instances of attempted deception. Looking someone in the eye is generally considered an indication of truth or honesty, while averting your eyes is generally considered a sign of disingenuousness of some sort. In U.S. culture, a firm handshake is perceived as an indication of self-confidence, while a limp one is perceived to correspond with an individual's limp personality. Additionally, someone might use words that make them sound confident and competent, but their slouchy posture, barely heard voice, and slight stutter send a very different message. In the end, it is these nonverbal cues that we rely on more than linguistic ones as evidence of someone's disposition and intentions. In communicating with diplomacy and tact, it is important to remember this point, and ensure that our nonverbal communication behaviors are not putting someone ill at ease, despite our carefully chosen words.

Nonverbal communication is the primary channel of conveying emotion, which relates to communicating with diplomacy and tact, and your ability to discern emotion in your listener while you are speaking. If someone is becoming visibly upset in response to what you're saying, the demands of communicating with diplomacy and tact would require you to alter your course.

Nonverbal communication is also meta-communicative, which means communicating about communication. We do this verbally when we say, "Actually I'm going to disagree with you," or, "Don't take this the wrong way," or, "I'm just kidding." Meta-communication is generally used in attempts to avoid misunderstandings and provide listeners with greater clarity about our communication intentions. If your colleague taps you gently on the shoulder, motions for you to follow her, and leads you into a vacant office and closes the door, you know what she is about to tell you is meant for your ears only. In these ways, her nonverbal communication cues are meta-communicative – they are telling you something about what she is about to tell you.

Channels of nonverbal communication

Researchers have identified 10 channels of nonverbal communication. These include:

  • facial displays
  • eye behaviors
  • movement and gestures
  • touch behaviors
  • vocal behaviors
  • the use of smell
  • the use of space
  • physical appearance
  • the use of time
  • use of artifacts

For our purposes in this article on communicating with diplomacy, we will be focusing our discussion on just a few of these. The importance of facial expressions, or facial displays, in our communication cannot be overlooked. Research suggests the face communicates more information than any other channel of nonverbal behavior. Facial displays have three important functions: identity, attractiveness, and emotion. The identity function explains that the face is our primary means of identifying those we know. Also, it is a picture of our face that the government wants on our passports or driver's licenses, not any other body part. The face is also a primary consideration when assessing an individual's beauty. Also, the face is our primary means of communicating emotion. We can make hundreds of different expressions with our faces, and we use these expressions to help convey a host of emotions. In fact, if you say you're happy, but you're not smiling or otherwise demonstrating facial expressions to indicate happiness, your audience may not believe that you're actually happy.

Even though the eyes are part of the face, because they communicate more than any other part of the face, researchers have given them their own category. When we think about using our eyes for nonverbal communication, eye contact generally comes to mind. We use eye contact to indicate we are attracted to someone, and to infer that someone is attracted to us. In the Western world, we use it to gain credibility,and in attempts to come across as sincere or trustworthy. We also use eye contact and persuasion and as an indication that we are paying attention and understanding what other people are saying. We also use eye contact to intimidate others or to take a dominant or authoritative position in the conversation or group discussion. Indeed, perhaps we feel most connected to another individual when we are looking into each other's eyes.

While holding eye contact can send the above messages, lack of eye contact sends messages, as well. As members of a globalized world, it's important to be aware that different cultures have different rules about eye contact, and that in many cultures direct eye contact is considered a challenge to the speaker, thus lack of eye contact is used to show deference and respect. In Western cultures, however, many studies have shown that avoiding eye contact elicits negative evaluations from others. Therefore, in communicating with diplomacy and tact, you may find it prudent to try to make and keep eye contact with your audience, but to not be offended if an audience member from a different culture refuses to hold eye contact with you.

Movement and gestures can also contribute to your ability to communicate with diplomacy and tact. Researchers have divided gestures into five areas. Emblems have verbal translation, such as putting up your hand to indicate stop. Illustrators enhance our verbal messages, such as indicating the size of the fish we caught. Affect displays communicate emotion, as people tend to wring their hands when nervous, or cover their mouths to indicate surprise. Regulators control the flow of the conversation, such as holding up your index finger to indicate that you're not quite finished talking. Raising your hand in class is also a regulator. Adapters are gestures used to satisfy some personal need, such as scratching an itch or picking lint off your shirt. When used excessively, the person is often perceived as nervous, aroused, or even deceptive.

Nonverbal cues in the voice speak volumes. Pitch (high or low), inflection (variations in pitch), volume (loud or quiet), rate (fast or slow), filler words (e.g. "um", "like"), pronunciation (correct vowel-consonant sounds in word formation), articulation (clarity in speech), accent (pronunciation pattern representing a particular region or language), and silence (absence of sound) comprise the components of the study of voice. Each of these areas communicates messages independent of the words actually spoken. For example, speaking slowly, quietly, with a relatively low pitch can have very different effect on your audience then speaking the same words quickly, loudly, and in a high pitch, with a good deal of inflection. In communicating with diplomacy and tact, it is a good idea to pay attention to the messages you are sending with your voice. If you want to put your audience at ease, it is important that your voice contribute to this perception with the right combination of the above characteristics. As with most communication areas, there is no single right way that this is done; rather, this depends upon your audience.

We will touch on smell only briefly, in the interest of space. In terms of communicating with diplomacy and tact, remember it is important that you instill good feelings in your audience – this is the definition of both diplomacy and tact. As such, it is important that the smell you carry with you not be offensive to your audience. Certainly, personal hygiene fits into this category, but certain perfumes and perfumed products do as well. If you are wearing a heavy perfume and your audience is allergic to perfume, you will have a very difficult time not making them feel bad about your interaction.

The same is true of physical appearance. By this, I don't mean your natural attractiveness. Rather, I mean that the social appropriateness of your physical appearance at that moment. This includes the clothes you wear and the condition of those clothes, in addition to matters of personal hygiene, such as attention to your hair. In communicating with diplomacy and tact, it is important that your audience perceive you positively in as many verbal and nonverbal channels as possible.

The use of artifacts is our final channel of nonverbal communication that we will discuss in this article. Artifacts are not only the cars we drive and the jewelry we wear, but also the use of light and color in our environments, as well as the presence and arrangement of furniture. If you want to make someone feel comfortable, you need to be in a comfortable space. If you are in a small, dark, windowless, cold, musty room with too much furniture, where you can hear the toilet flush from upstairs, it's difficult to instill only positive reception of your message. Take your audience into a more comfortable space, with light, windows, fresh air, fresh colors, and the sound of birds out your window, and it will be a lot easier to send whatever message you have to send, without making them feel bad.