Talking Without Words: Non Verbal Communication

“We’re getting married,” my son announced. We cheered. “In Brazil.”
We hooted at the prospect of an escape from England, as it shivered in mid-December. What’s more, the wedding venue was Salvador, in the hot north-east of the country near the equator, where the new in-laws live.
Yes, it really does look like this.© Lisa James | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Sunshine: check.  Palm trees: check. Heat 30 degrees: what’s not to like?

Girls with tanned bodies and long hair. No wonder my husband was so keen.
Did you know that Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish as I imagined? So much for my vague memories of learning Spanish on holiday on the Costas, then.
We did not speak Portuguese. My son’s fiancée’s family spoke no English. How then, were we to understand each other, let alone spend the entire day of the wedding together? The thought was daunting, but the solution simple.
We had to loosen up our British stiff upper lips and let our bodies do the talking.
We dipped our toes in the water with smiles and nods, hugs and multiple kisses on the cheek (at least two). Good relations established, we saw rougher seas ahead. How do you make small talk, or just chat or crack jokes, when you don’t share a language?
We would not let words get in our way. We took deep breaths and plunged in, arms waving and eyebrows waggling.
“Oh,” we said, with smiles and two hands to our faces. Everyone saw it meant, “She looks beautiful.”
We shrugged, frowned and glanced to either side to ask where we should sit. They pointed and patted the seats.
“Have some cake” was easy, so was “More champagne?” Everyone can mime eating and drinking.
With a little help from our dictionaries, some paper to draw on and more champagne we didn’t look back.
We waved our hands; we jumped up to perform elaborate mimes. If one person couldn’t guess what we meant, another one could.
We found out who was on their second marriage, who had been having affairs and who with. We talked about the price of houses and debated how to travel by car around Salvador. (Tip: close your eyes.)
Sometimes, the conversation stopped for a while. But it didn’t matter. We sat together, not talking, to enjoy each other’s company.
Of course, everything’s easier when the sun shines and you sit outside around the pool, but some of the lessons from that day will stay with me always.
So here’s what I learned:
  • If you want to communicate you can do so without words. All it takes is goodwill and the willingness to lose some of your inhibitions.
  •  Silence is no enemy to communication. Sitting quietly together can create a real bond.
  •  Always have paper and a pen with you.
  • Don’t be afraid to draw – stick people are the high points of my ability, but they get the message across.
  • Use your hands, your facial expressions and even inarticulate grunts: anythingto help people understand. Unleash your inner actor.
And yes, since you ask, the women are scandalously gorgeous over there. But, on the other hand, our new Brazilian family swooned over our fair hair and blue eyes.

Empathy: The Secret The Best Communicators Understand

I can hear you sigh: if only there was one simple rule for good communication skills. One cast-iron guaranteed way you can find the right thing to say to help you get that job, deal with your teen’s sulks, know when to argue and recognise when to apologise.

Well, worry no more. There’s one communication skill that outweighs all the practice in the world in making eye contact, nodding and matching people’s leg-crossings.

Not that those things don’t help you communicate better, of course. They do. But they work because of this one special gift we can all share.
Have you guessed it yet?
Ok, for those of you who didn’t already scan down the page to peek, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy. The big E.
The magic silver bullet you need to succeed.
Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels, understand his point of view and imagine what he’s thinking. Or, as Native Americans (possibly) have said, “to walk a mile in another man’s moccasins.” Or woman’s, obviously.
© Clarita | Dreamstime Stock Photos

When you understand the person you’re talking to, you can tailor your messages to suit them. If they’re cross, you may use a calm voice to deflect their anger. If they’re worried, you could ask what’s wrong, or if they’re anxious, you may want to offer support.

Now I hear you wonder why, if this fabulous gift is out there and free of charge, we aren’t all grabbing it and working our silver-tongued magic on everyone from the car salesman to our toddler with a tantrum.

The answer is that although some degree of empathy seems to be hard-wired in our brains, making use of it is a skill, and like any skill, it takes hard work and practice to grow it. Lots of practice. Plus determination, focus, time, effort and all the other difficult stuff you thought you could leave behind when you left school.

Oh, I feel your pain (laughs cruelly). You thought it was going to be easy.

On the other hand, you can work on it while you watch TV, trawl through Twitter and flirt with Facebook.

When you feel empathy, when you understand the way the other person thinks, you react in a way that means something to them.

In the simplest terms, it means you don’t laugh when someone tells you their cat died. You may be a dog person, and think all cats are witches’ familiars, but you know enough about the cat’s owner to feel at least a little of their sorrow.


Empathy comes more easily to some than to others, like all human traits.Work to improve your empathy and you’ll find your communication skills develop automatically.

Find out what other people feel and think by watching them and listening to them. Their body language gives you plenty of clues. Here are a few hints:

1 She tends to look at the floor rather than at you: she’s paying attention to how she feels inside, she may be shy, not confident, may even be upset.

2 He makes great eye contact: he feels happy, confident and friendly.

3 She folds her arms: whoops, she’s anxious or nervous, or wants you to keep your distance.

4 He strokes his hair or touches his face: he cares what you think about him.

5 She speaks in a high voice: she’s nervous, or likes to be like a little girl (think Minnie Mouse).

There are hundreds of types of body language. Don’t forget to watch conversations between others or on the screen to pick up some clues. Learn to recognise ‘tells’: the tiny movements or the eyes, or hands, or facial muscles people use that give them away when they’re nervous, telling lies or trying to sell you something. That’s how poker players operate.

Once you see how someone feels it’s far easier to talk to her.

Why not do a spot of people-watching, next time you’re on the bus or in a restaurant?

What have you noticed people doing that gives you a clue about them? I’d love to hear your stories.

Handshakes, Hugs and Kisses: tiptoe through the minefield of non verbal communication

Around the world, we smile, hug and kiss, shake hands or bow when we meet. Our arms, bodies, voices and faces all have a role to play in meeting and greeting. How strange that we behave so differently, depending where we live.
Leloft1911 dreamstime stock images
It’s easy to undermine our communication messages if we don’t take care. For example, Mary thinks hugs are warm and cosy. She throws her arms round someone when she’s pleased to see them, because she loves them, or maybe wants to comfort them. Sadly, though, as a serial hugger she doesn’t always realise when the huggee is uncomfortable.
When she hugged Diane, her cousin stood still and stiff, waiting awkwardly until she finished. It wasn’t because she doesn’t like Mary. It’s just that people don’t behave like that where she comes from. She’d have preferred a simple smile.
Learn a little about the culture of the person you greet. The Chinese, says blogger Hsin-Yi, don’t hug. They prefer to nod and smile, even when greeting an old and close friend after years of absence. Even fond mothers don’t hug their daughters, but show their love in practical ways, like in the food they cook.
In South America, on the other hand, hugging’s just not quite enough.  Warm and friendly, Brasilians and Argentinians like to plant a couple of warm kisses on your cheek, along with a hug and a pat on the back. Men kiss men there, so northern Europeans may have to deliver something more than their usual handshake, brief eye contact or (very) restrained hug.
In other parts of Europe, the French and Belgians kiss once, twice or three times on the cheek, depending on familiarity or even the part of the country. Walk into a room here and you’ll find yourself passing from one person to the next, kissing each cheek separately.
Helpful hint: try putting your left cheek forward first when you kiss to avoid untidy nose-bumps.
Northern Europeans may prefer the sort of hug that makes sure no body parts actually touch, or the “mwa-mwa” air kiss. Without the body contact, it’s often eye contact and a warm smile that shows you care. You could try the politician’s favourite handshake, where you clasp the other person’s hands with both of yours, or grab their forearm at the same time, but beware of seeming controlling or condescending.
Maybe the Maoris in New Zealand manage things best with their Hongi, where they touch noses and breathe together.
If you go to Japan, learn to bow politely, or in India you may need to touch an older relative’s feet in order to show real respect.
Your best bet is to research the country you visit carefully before you go, then spend some time people-watching when you arrive, so you can see how most people behave.

More Communication blogs:

How To Make Friends When You’re Shy

How To Be an Introvert

Verbal and Non Verbal Communication Skills: Ten Golden Rules 

How to be an Introvert

Jane Austen understood the power of the quiet person. Anne Elliot, her heroine in Persuasion, sits in the background to play the piano while the extroverts dance, but the hero finally learns to appreciate her quiet depths. If you find it exhausting to be part of a noisy group, or wonder how other people manage to tell anecdote after story, making the room rock with laughter, you may be an introvert, too.  
An introvert’s picture of bliss? Dreamstime Stock Photo
As an introvert you may find reflection and calm more energising than the liveliness of social interaction. Not all introverts are the same. Andy longs for a remote island where he can think in peace while Mike thoroughly enjoys a drink with a few friends, and even loves a party – so long as he can take some time out to recharge his batteries alone later. You may be easily over-stimulated by noise or flashing lights and prefer to work in a silent room. Maybe you turn the TV off, for the peace, while your partner turns it on for the company.
Introverts make a difference
Whatever your preference, remember it’s OK to sit and think. Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, urges you to let go of your guilt. Although today’s world seems to value fast talkers and people who think on their feet, there’s a place for those who inhabit the other end of the spectrum. Einstein, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and Warren Buffet are all introverts who have made a significant difference to the world.
Beware of over-thinking. That can be an introvert’s curse. You may love Facebook. because it gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you want to say before posting your comments. On the other hand, you may never post at all if you consider your words so carefully that you tweak them for days, until they’re no longer relevant. A would-be author can fail to get beyond writing chapter one, by spending every minute of his writing time perfecting the first 3,000 words.
How others see you
Ask an extrovert what she thinks, and you may be surprised by the way she views you. “James sits quietly through a whole meeting, then says something so profound that we all have to stop and rethink,” remarked one of James’ colleagues. Another self-avowed extrovert, Terry, said she was terrified of the introverts at work because they seemed to her to be sitting silently and judging her.
Team work
Jane, a cheerful, noisy talker, said she wished her quieter colleague, Sarah, would say something (anything) to her so they could get a dialogue going. She likes to hone her ideas aloud, while Sarah prefers to think things through and only speak when she feels she has something useful to say.
Would Jane and Sarah make a great team, or should they keep away from each other and stick with work colleagues who work in a similar way?
Does society need people from across the whole spectrum, from the wildest rock-star extrovert to the silent monk in a priory, or should quiet people make more of an effort to make themselves heard?

How to Make Friends When You’re Shy

 If you’re shy, you may hate the idea of going to a party where you won’t know many people. Maybe you feel uncomfortable talking to a group or even convince yourself that other people are somehow better than you. Shyness makes it hard to venture into new places and may tempt you to stay at home instead. Watch how confident people behave and imitate them to overcome your fears and make new friends.
1          Remember you’re not alone. About 40 percent of people in the UK describe themselves as shy. Although your shyness may make your heart beat faster and your hands sweat, other people don’t know how you feel. In fact, they probably feel the same way.
2          Start with some research into the way confident people behave. Stop wasting time envying them and wishing you could tell jokes like they do. Instead, watch how they use body language. Self-assured people smile, look you in the eye and step forward when they meet you. A confident voice is clear, resonant and often sounds deeper than other voices.
3          Watch yourself in a mirror and mimic the way those self-assured people behave. Stand tall, with your hands by your sides and your chin raised and notice how much more in control you look when than when you fold your arms, stand on one leg and gaze at the floor. Look yourself in the eye and smile.
4          Learn to relax your body. To relieve body tension, lift your shoulders up to your ears and then let them fall comfortably in place. Breathe out slowly until your lungs are empty before allowing them to refill themselves. Avoid taking a deep breath as this can encourage you to tense your muscles.
5          Try a few words in this relaxed state. You may find you speak on a slightly lower note than before. Nervousness raises your pitch, but using relaxation relieves the tension in your vocal cords, so your voice drops and becomes richer.
6          Experiment with one change at a time. Next time you speak to someone, use one of the techniques you tried at home. See what happens when you make eye contact, or stand straighter, or use a deeper voice. Keep using this new, confident body language until it becomes a habit.
7          Become a good listener. Focus your attention on the person talking to you. Try to understand what they say, asking questions to clarify what they mean. Use an occasional nod to make it clear they have your full attention, and keep your eyes on their face.