10 Tips for Improving Your Nonverbal Communication

Strong communication skills can help you in both your personal and professional life. While verbal and written communication skills are important, research has shown that nonverbal behaviors make up a large percentage of our daily interpersonal communication.

How can you improve your nonverbal communication skills? Paying closer attention to your nonverbal signals is an excellent place to start. You can also focus on factors such as tone of voice, eye contact, body language, and the context in which the communication occurs.

The following tips can help you learn to read other people's nonverbal signals and enhance your ability to communicate effectively. With practice, you can become more adept at conveying meaning without saying a word.


Pay Attention to Nonverbal Signals

Man smiling and shaking hands with a woman at a conference table
David Lees / Taxi / Getty Images

People can communicate information in numerous ways, so pay attention to a variety of signals including:

  • Body movements
  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Tone of voice

All of these signals can convey important information that is not put into words. For example, eye contact can help establish how attentive a person is. Tone of voice might reveal hints about their emotional state. Even posture can help convey how interested and engaged a person is in a conversation.

By paying closer attention to other people's unspoken behaviors, you will improve your own ability to communicate nonverbally.


Look for Incongruent Behaviors

You should pay careful attention if someone's words do not match their nonverbal behaviors. For example, someone might tell you they are happy while frowning and staring at the ground.

When words fail to match up with nonverbal signals, people often ignore what has been said and focus instead on unspoken expressions of moods, thoughts, and emotions. Therapists, for example, utilize these incongruencies to look for how a client might feel during a session.

So when someone says one thing, but their body language suggests something else, it can be helpful to pay extra attention to those subtle nonverbal cues. 

Be aware that other factors might contribute to these differences. Physical challenges may affect a person's ability to convey signals, so consider other reasons why words and behaviors might not match up.


Focus on Tone of Voice

Your tone of voice can convey a wealth of information, ranging from enthusiasm to disinterest to anger. Tone can be an effective way to amplify your message.

Start noticing how your tone of voice affects how others respond to you and try using your tone to emphasize ideas that you want to communicate.

For example, if you want to show genuine interest in something, express your enthusiasm by using an animated tone of voice. Such signals not only convey your feelings about a topic; they can also help generate interest in the people listening to you speak.

Researchers have found that tone of voice can affect how people respond to healthcare practitioners. Patients report greater satisfaction when treated by surgeons who use a non-dominant tone of voice. People who use more vocal variety in tone of voice are rated as more trustworthy and attentive.


Use Good Eye Contact

Good eye contact is another essential nonverbal communication skill. When people fail to look others in the eye, it can seem as if they are evading or trying to hide something. On the other hand, too much eye contact can seem confrontational or intimidating.

While eye contact is an essential part of communication, it's important to remember that good eye contact does not mean staring fixedly into someone's eyes. How can you tell how much eye contact is appropriate?

Some communication experts recommend intervals of eye contact lasting three to four seconds. Effective eye contact should feel natural and comfortable for you and the person you are speaking with.


Ask Questions

If you are confused about another person's nonverbal signals, don't be afraid to ask questions. A good idea is to repeat back your interpretation of what has been said and ask for clarification. Some examples of this:

  • "So what you are saying is that..."
  • "Do you mean that we should..."
  • "What I'm hearing is that you think..."

Such questions can help clarify a conversation and encourage the other person to keep talking. These questions are part of active listening and help demonstrate your interest and engagement in the conversation.

Sometimes simply asking such questions can lend a great deal of clarity to a situation.

For example, a person might be giving off certain nonverbal signals because they have something else on their mind. By inquiring further into their message and intent, you might get a better idea of what they are really trying to say.


Use Signals to Add Meaning

Remember that verbal and nonverbal communication work together to convey a message. You can improve your spoken communication by using body language that reinforces and supports what you are saying. This can be especially useful when making presentations or speaking to a large group.

For example, suppose your goal is to appear confident and prepared during a presentation. In that case, you will want to focus on sending nonverbal signals that ensure that others see you as self-assured and capable. You can strike a self-confident stance by:

  • Standing firmly in one place
  • Keeping your shoulders back
  • Keeping your weight balanced on both feet

Matching your body language to your verbal messages can help convey greater meaning and clarify your intentions. Body movements and stance are important, but facial expressions, eye gaze, mouth movements, gestures, and personal space are also essential components.


Look at Signals as a Whole

Another important part of good nonverbal communication skills involves being able to take a more holistic approach to what a person is communicating. A single gesture can mean any number of things or maybe even nothing at all.

The key to accurately reading nonverbal behavior is looking for groups of signals reinforcing a common point.

If you place too much emphasis on just one signal out of many, you might come to an inaccurate conclusion about what a person is trying to say.

For example, imagine that a person sounds and looks confident in their words and body language, but you notice that they don't make much eye contact. If you were to base your assessment on eye gaze alone, you might conclude that they were anxious or unsure, when in reality, they are just tired or distracted.


Consider the Context

When you are communicating with others, always consider the situation and the context in which the communication occurs. Some situations require more formal behaviors that might be interpreted very differently in any other setting.

Consider whether or not nonverbal behaviors are appropriate for the context. If you are trying to improve your own nonverbal communication, concentrate on ways to make your signals match the level of formality necessitated by the situation.

For example, the body language and nonverbal communication you utilize at work are probably very different from the sort of signals you would send on a casual Friday night out with friends. Strive to match your nonverbal signals to the situation to ensure that you are conveying the message you really want to send.


Be Aware That Signals Can be Misread

According to some, a firm handshake indicates a strong personality while a weak handshake is taken as a lack of fortitude. This example illustrates an important point about the possibility of misreading nonverbal signals. A weak handshake might actually indicate something else entirely, such as arthritis.

Always remember to look for groups of behavior. A person's overall demeanor is far more telling than a single gesture viewed in isolation.

Interpreting nonverbal communication is complex and relies on various abilities, including interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Understanding that situations can be misread, different factors can affect how a person comes across, and the impact of your own biases can help you better interpret different nonverbal signals.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Some people just seem to have a knack for using nonverbal communication effectively and correctly interpreting signals from others. These people are often described as being able to "read people."

In reality, nonverbal communication is a skill you can improve. You can build this skill by paying careful attention to nonverbal behavior and practicing different types of nonverbal communication with others.

By noticing nonverbal behavior and practicing your own skills, you can dramatically improve your communication abilities.

Nonverbal communication is complex and varied. There's is no single approach or signal that is appropriate in every context. Being more aware of how nonverbal signals impact interpersonal relationships can help you learn to use nonverbal communication more effectively 

A Word From Verywell

Nonverbal communication skills are essential and can make it easier to convey your point and to read what others are trying to tell you. Some people seem to come by these skills quite naturally, but anyone can improve their nonverbal skills with practice.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."