January 24, 2002
BY Maggie Boleyn, RN

Read The Signals

"Go away." "I'm too busy to listen." "Your opinion doesn't matter to me."

We might never dream of saying these things aloud to colleagues, but these messages can be sent loud and clear through your nonverbal communication. When you talk with someone, your eyes, posture, gestures and other nonverbal cues may say more than your words.

Most nurses realize that reading nonverbal cues is essential when assessing patients, but few may apply these useful skills to "reading" colleagues in the workplace to benefit their careers. "To be an effective communicator, your must be aware of your nonverbal communication," said Robert Paige, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo. It's important to be mindful of your nonverbal messages, or "you're gonna be in trouble," Paige said.

In the workplace, people see you, not your credentials. Sending appropriate nonverbal signals can give you an edge in your career or make your working environment a better one. Inappropriate nonverbal signals could lead to you not being taken seriously and keep you from moving into leadership positions.

Studies show that during interpersonal communication, 7 percent of the message is verbally communicated, while 93 percent is transmitted nonverbally. More than one-half, or 55 percent of the message, is sent to the other person via facial expression. One-third of your message is conveyed via your vocal tone. Listeners can quickly identify sarcasm when it's used. If verbal information contradicts the vocal tone, the vocal tone will dominate the message.

Whenever there is a conflict between the verbal and the nonverbal, "The nonverbal message is more accurate," Paige said. Words can be used persuasively, but vocal tone and gestures are much harder to control. Be aware of the influence that tone, pitch and the quality of your voice have on the interpretation of your message.

Good posture identifies you as someone with something to say. Stand tall, flex your knees and pull your rib cage up. Look directly at the person to whom you are speaking.

Eye contact is the most-remembered element in forming an impression. "Eye contact is crucial," Paige said. Make sure to focus on the eyes and not at the other person's mouth or off to the side. But do not stare-look at them for no more than five to seven seconds.

Effective communication requires that one is alert to the many nonverbal cues expressed by listeners. These include posture, gestures, facial expression, tone and inflection of words, dress and personal space. For example, how close do people stand as you talk? This is called proxemics. In general, moving closer to you indicates an interest in you or the discussion. Keeping a distance may indicate uncertainty about you or disinterest in your topic.

Dane Archer, Ph.D., a professor of communications at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has developed a series of videos that examine nonverbal communication, including cultural differences and use of space.

"Americans dislike spatial crowding or invasion with a passion," Archer said. Although misuse of space in communication is considered a serious offense, few people will address the issue with the offender. "Research shows that only one invadee in 100 will confront the invader," Archer said. "This is a very low rate because observation of space invasions clearly shows that the victim is irritated, annoyed, upset or angry."

Archer recommends that when you confront an individual who is intruding on your comfort zone, you politely say something like, "Excuse me, I'm sorry to be annoying, but could I ask you for a little more space here-I need it to do X."

A smile can be a potent nonverbal communication tool. Genuine emotions usually cause a quick smile that encompasses the entire face. If someone is faking an emotion, they often hold the expression too long.

In Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success, author Sherry Maysonave writes: "Genuine smiles are almost always empowering. Professionalism and an overly serious manner are not one and the same. Nor is professionalism staid and boring. Highly professional people smile appropriately and they command respect. Smiles can indicate a friendly, approachable, pleasant person. However, if a smile is too big and lasts for too long, when first meeting someone or entering a meeting, it can say that you're feeling nervous or that you're a little goofy. Others may also think that you are insincere, or worse, that you're making fun of them."

Maysonave recommends that if you have trouble smiling or appearing approachable in a professional setting, try keeping your mouth open, just a little, but not gaping, to keep your lips slightly parted.

Control any distracting movements or sounds that can undermine your credibility and professionalism, such as twisting a ring or frequently touching your hair. If you aren't aware of your habits, ask someone who knows you well to point them out to you.

Unless asked, others almost never correct mistakes in nonverbal acts. "It is very unlikely that your 'victims' will ever tell you that you are not using the correct levels of space and touch. Instead, people may flee at your approach," Archer said.

İNurseWeek Publishing

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