Research suggests that communication is as much as 93 percent nonverbal. Therefore, in a discussion about communication, the nonverbal channel cannot be overlooked.
Researchers have divided nonverbal communication into 10 distinct channels. For the purpose of giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, we will be discussing four of these channels: facial displays, eye behaviors, movement and gestures, and vocal behaviors.
In terms of identity, we used the face to identify people. Pictures on our walls are generally of people's faces, not their body parts. When evaluating our attraction to others, we typically use the face as a primary evaluation point. Finally, facial displays, more than any other nonverbal channels, provide clues to a person's emotional state.
Because this is a discussion on giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, we will elaborate on the emotional aspect of facial displays, and not the other two, which are less relevant for this discussion.
There are numerous muscles in our faces, and we are able to make hundreds of different facial expressions. We use those expressions to convey many emotions, including happiness, surprise, and determination, as well as anger, fear, sadness, and contempt. The accuracy with which we decode someone else's facial expressions depends on several factors.
The first is the emotion itself. Drawing from our previous discussion of emotions, we know that some emotions are easier to recognize than others. The easiest to decode is happiness. Additionally, women tend to be better decoders of emotion than men, and research has shown that this holds true across many cultures. Although the reasons for this are not entirely certain, this may be a result of the fact that in many cultures, women are conditioned to be more friendly, supportive, and nurturing than men, which results in better decoding skills. Lastly, those who are extroverted and outgoing tend to be better at accurately decoding emotion in facial displays than are those who are shy or introverted.
Our movement and gestures also tell a lot about us. When we are feeling confident, we tend to hold our heads high and walk with smooth, consistent strides. When we're nervous, we tend to walk more timidly, often stealing glances at the people around us. Whatever you're feeling, the way you walk can send messages about that emotion. Researchers have subdivided movement and gestures into five categories. These include emblems, which have a direct verbal translation, such as a wave hello; illustrators, which enhance or clarify our verbal messages, such as demonstrating the size of something while speaking; affect displays, such as wringing your hands when you're nervous, covering your mouth to indicate surprise; regulators, which control the flow of the conversation, such as raising a finger when someone is trying to interrupt you; and adapters, which satisfy some personal need, such as scratching an itch, or picking lint off your shirt. When people use adapters excessively, they are often perceived as being nervous, aroused, or perhaps deceptive. In the context of giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, the use of adapters can provide clues to a person's internal state, permitting us to adjust our communication if necessary in order to proceed smoothly.
Study of the voice, or vocalics, includes how we say what it is that we say. This includes pitch (high or low), inflection (variations in pitch), volume (loud or quiet), rate (fast or slow), filler words (e.g. "like," "um"), pronunciation (correct vowel and consonant combinations), articulation (clarity of speech), accent (pattern of pronunciation representative of a language or geographic area), and silence (the absence of sound). Most relevant to our discussion of giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, the rate at which we speak gives clues to how we feel about ourselves, as we tend to speak more slowly than usual when we are uncertain of ourselves. Also, research shows that the more filler words people use, we tend to judge them as less competent and sociable. Further, if an adult with normally good articulation begins to slur, this can be a sign of fatigue. Silence is relevant because we use it to indicate that we do not wish to answer a question, perhaps in an effort to avoid embarrassment or offense.
Uses of nonverbal communication
Power and dominance are also conveyed through the nonverbal cues. Power is the potential to affect another's behavior, while dominance is the exercise of that power. Dominance can be conveyed through touch, and supervisors tend to touch their subordinates more often than subordinates touch their supervisors; facial expressions, such as offering a certain look to convey dissatisfaction from a superior to a subordinate, as well as silence, can be used to stop others from continuing to speak when we are in an uncomfortable conversation. These are just some examples of how nonverbal communication cues can be used to influence and control the behavior of others.
An impression of credibility can be conveyed by speaking loudly, quickly, and expressively, with a good deal of pitch variation and few filler words. Eye contact and illustrator gestures also improve a person's perceived credibility. Further, research has found that maintaining eye contact while you speak, instead of only while you're listening, has been shown to have powerfully persuasive effects.
The nonverbal channel of touch, which we did not discuss in this article in the interest of space, can be used to create a sense of affiliation. This can be useful in giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, especially in light of the concepts from the discussion on politeness theory. Affiliation can also be enhanced through convergence of two people's behaviors, or mirroring another's posture, gestures, facial expressions, or vocal behaviors, which may cause that person to subconsciously perceive you as more similar to him or her. This is very useful in persuasion, because we tend to like people who are similar to us.
When we talk about a communication climate, we are talking about a communication environment, be it positive, neutral, or negative. Positive communication climates demonstrate the participants' value each other, and they tend to spiral up with increased input and become increasingly positive. Negative communication climates tend to spiral down with increased negative input and become increasingly negative.
The communication behaviors that lend to a positive communication climate are known as confirming messages, while those that contribute to a negative communication climate are known as disconfirming messages. There are several types of each along a continuum, with disagreeing messages in the middle, and thus considered more neutral.
Acknowledgment is acknowledging the feelings and ideas of another. It is stronger than recognition. Listening is probably the most common form of acknowledgment. When your supervisor asks for your opinion, do you not feel valued?
Disagreeing messages are more neutral. Here, you're basically telling someone they are wrong. This can be done respectfully or disrespectfully; the choice is yours. Options here are argumentativeness, complaining, and aggressiveness. Argumentativeness is considered constructive, because it keeps the discussion centered around someone's position, rather than that person's self. Complaining can be constructive or destructive, depending on whether the complaint centers on positions or people and their characteristics. Aggressiveness is the most destructive as it demeans another's worth through personal attacks that seek to win an argument at the other person's expense.
Disconfirming messages, those that demonstrate low value for the other person, include imperviousness, interrupting, tangential response, impersonal response, ambiguous response, and incongruous response. Imperviousness means basically ignoring someone. You might ignore a phone call, a text message, an invitation, or an attempt at conversation. This can be psychologically damaging when done to significant others. Interrupting means you don't value what another person is saying, and by extension you don't value that person. A tangential response acknowledges the other person's communication, but uses it as a springboard to steer the conversation in another direction. For example, in response to your exclaiming to a colleague that you got the project finished, she might say, "Wow, great!" followed by, "Do you think it'll get by the boss?" Impersonal responses are those in which the speaker fills the speaking space with irrelevant, perhaps intellectualized, generalized statements that avoid interacting with the other person on a personal level. An ambiguous response is one with multiple meanings, perhaps known only privately to the speaker. An incongruous response is otherwise known as a mixed message, and occurs when the verbal and nonverbal channels are sending different messages. An example of this might be the mother who tells her daughter, "Yes, that's nice dear," though her face and vocal tone express disapproval and disdain. Each of these types of disconfirming messages tells the other person that you do not value him or her.
In the context of giving and receiving feedback and constructive criticism, it is most productive -- and constructive -- to remain within the realm of confirming messages, and to avoid disconfirming messages.