The Channels of Nonverbal Communication

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.

Facial displays are the facial expressions used for communication. Indeed, researchers have shown that the face communicates more information than any other nonverbal channel. The face communicates identity, attractiveness, and emotion.

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.
Though the eyes are part of the face, they comprise a distinct category of nonverbal communication, because they are the most expressive component of the face. Therefore, eye behaviors are categorized and examined separately. Eye contact plays a very important role in communication, although it is used and interpreted differently across cultures. Eye contact is used in many ways and for many reasons. We use it to signal that we are attracted to someone, and to infer that someone is attracted to us. We use it as a way to gain credibility and demonstrate that we are sincere or trustworthy. We also use it in persuasion, and to show that we are paying attention and comprehending what someone else is saying. Additionally, we use it to intimidate, dominate, or take authoritative positions in a conversation or group discussion. Indeed, looking into each other's eyes is possibly the best way for us to feel connected to another. The lack of eye contact also sends messages. In Western cultures, avoiding eye contact engenders negative evaluation from others. It can indicate untrustworthiness and lack of self-confidence. Further, pupil size also sends messages. Our pupils tend to dilate when we are looking at someone we find attractive, and when we feel arousal of some sort. This arousal can be either positive, such as excitement, or negative, such as anxiety or fear. Therefore, watching another person's pupils react can tell us something about his or her interest and arousal. However, this is not easy to see with the naked eye.

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

There are several uses of nonverbal communication, but in the interest of space, only a couple will be discussed here. Nonverbal communication cues can be especially helpful in ascertaining someone's emotional state, which can be useful in determining how to move forward in a conversation involving constructive feedback and criticism. Pitch can give us clues to how someone is feeling. Anger, surprise, happiness, fear, and affection tend to result in a higher than normal vocal pitch, while disgust, boredom, and extreme grief are marked by a lower vocal pitch. Speed can also give us clues, as we speak much faster than normal when were scared, slightly faster when were angry, slightly slower when we're sad, and much lower than normal when we are disgusted. Our speech tends to become faster when we're excited, and slower when we're content. Sadness and anxiety can be conveyed through movement and gestures, such as slouched posture and slow movement, excessive fidgeting, and frequent use of adapters, such as scratching your head or picking lint off your shirt.

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.

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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.

The process of interpreting nonverbal communication to discern underlying emotions and attitudes is useful in building our communication skills. This discussion has provided information on nonverbal communication channels and characteristics, as relevant, to giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism. It is not exhaustive in its explanation, but rather is intended to provide background fundamentals for improving your ability to "read" others' nonverbal messages in efforts for your giving and receiving of feedback and criticism to be more productive and constructive.


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.

Confirming messages are recognition, acknowledgment, and endorsement. Recognition is the most fundamental of all confirming messages. It is basic, yet often ignored. In practicing recognition, we return phone calls and text messages, we stop by friends' homes when we are in town, and we generally make time for those in our lives.

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?
In endorsement, interest in another person is communicated. This is often accomplished through agreeing with that person, or otherwise communicating that you find him or her important. Straightforward praise is a great form of endorsement, and if you look for it, you can probably find something you can praise about another person and/or his or her communication behaviors, even if you might disagree with the base premise on which that person makes an argument. In the context of feedback and constructive criticism, this is useful to keep in mind.

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.