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Nonverbal Communications Issues

Chapter 3: Nonverbal Communications Issues
Tools for Communications
By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.

What is nonverbal communication?
You cannot say nothing! Try to sit for one minute without speaking. Even if you are able to keep from moving you will still communicate rigidity, anxiety, or something. We are always saying something. It is important to observe and try to understand what is being communicated. In many situations people say what they think intellectually rather than what they feel emotionally. There is some truth in the old cliché: actions speak louder than words. Body language, carefully observed and interpreted, can tell a lot about what others are feeling.

Nonverbal communication is learned and practiced often on an unconscious level. We attract people by using these nonverbal signals, and sometimes those we attract (or who are attracted to us) are unwholesome. As we grow older and become more aware of ourselves we should be able to recognize and weed out the unwholesome in favor of those for whom we have an affinity.

Body language can be disguised behind a mask out of a fear of rejection. This can discourage wanted and needed relationships from developing. Those who want and need certain relationships to develop must relearn their nonverbal skills and unmask themselves in order to avoid alienation.


Body language is open to misinterpretation just as verbal communication is. It must be interpreted in the context of one's lifestyle, family, cultural background, and other factors that may be obscure. Each person has a limited repertoire of gestures and uses the same gestures to signify certain feelings. Gestures also can occur in clusters, so that while any particular gesture alone may not mean much, when it is reinforced by other gestures in a cluster the feeling or attitude being projected is confirmed.

What are some nonverbal gestures?

Openness, confidence:

open hands, palms up

unbuttoning or removing jacket (men)

eye contact

smile, leaning forward, relaxed

hands away from face, possibly behind back

standing straight, feet slightly apart, shoulders squared

hand in belt thumb hooked in waist


snapping fingers

smacking palm


Cooperation, readiness:

standing with hands on hips, feet apart, head tilted

uncrossed legs

a person moves closer to another

unbuttoned coat (men)

head cocked, finger to face, blinking or squinting

welcoming handshake

open arms or hands (palms out)


eye contact

rubbing palms together indicating expectation of something pleasant

hand to chest in a man indicates loyalty (but in a woman it is defensiveness)

touching, patting, holding hands to give reassurance



taking notes

evaluation gestures especially hand to face

leaning forward

use of space in seating so as to avoid barriers

eye contact

Lincolnesque position

absence of gestures indicative of dominance, indifference, defensiveness, etc.

Take notice of gestures signifying a desire to interrupt: “school” gesture of raising hand displaced to tugging ear or just raising hand from table and then dropping back

index finger to lip to restrain from interrupting

hand on arm of speaker


Indifference, boredom:

leg over arm of chair

rhythmic drumming, tapping

legs crossed

shaking one foot (women)

straighten up then slouch

cold shoulder: turning away especially toward exit

glancing at exit

rigid, unmoving posture with fixed stare


hand holding up face, drooping eyelids

fidget or rock

turning up nose and/or “tsk” sound (signifying disgust)


Evaluation, interest:

hand to cheek gesture in style of Rodin's The Thinker statue

slight blinking or squinting

chin stroking

hands touching face especially upper lip

leaning forward (positive) and leaning back (negative)

head tilted, ear cocked

peering over top of glasses

sucking on tip of pencil or earpiece of glasses indicates wish for nourishment in form of more information

arched eyebrows

licking lips

wrinkling nose

scratching head

ruffling hair




hand over nose

eyes closed

brow furrowed

arched eyebrows


scratching in front of ear

rubbing eyes

hand to face gestures (evaluative)

scratching head

pinching bridge of nose, especially with head lowered

pacing with head down and hands behind back or just standing—unwise to interrupt a person thus engaged


Suspicion, secretiveness:

folded arms, moving away from another

crossed legs

head tilted forward

rubbing nose

lack of eye contact

hand covering mouth

scratching in front of ear


scrunching in with head down

stolen look, sideways glance

sideways positioning

“poker face”

deception indicated by lack of eye contact

anxiety gestures

looking at floor

frequent swallowing

wetting lips

throat clearing

scratching head


Need for reassurance:

clenched hands with thumbs rubbing

stroking arms

cuticle picking

hand pinching sucking on pen, glasses, etc.

touching chair before sitting

hand to throat (women) often displaced to seemingly checking to see if necklace is still there



nail biting

finger movement


hand wringing

rapid, twitchy movements

clearing throat

tremors, especially knees

heavy breathing

voice strained

lips quivering

rapid eye movement


crossed fingers

chewing on things


Frustration, anger:

making fists

hands on hips


if sitting – on edge of chair (ready for action)

chin out

kicking the ground

lips pressed together, jaw muscles tight

running fingers through hair

rubbing back of neck

hand in pocket


clenched hands with white knuckles

pointing or jabbing

hot under collar

putting out cigarette especially if with grinding motion

change in skin color

hostile stare



hands in pocket

hands behind back

clenched hands

men with jackets button up

folded arms (can be reinforced by making fists)

crossed legs

body twisted away, moving away, sitting back

looking at door

head tilted forward, possibly squinting

stalling for time by cleaning glasses, rearranging, etc.

hand rubbing back of neck.


Self–control, inner conflict:

hand holding wrist or arm

arm locked behind back

locked ankles

gripping arms of chair as in dentist's chair

suppressed gestures or displacement activities such as fist clenched hidden in pocket

hand to mouth in astonishment or fear (suppressed scream)

hand rubbing back of neck, running fingers through hair (displaced hitting out), “stiff upper lip” or reacting as little as possible

blowing nose and coughing (disguised tears)



elevating self, like standing when others are sitting

taking a different posture than others in a group, especially hands behind head

sitting straddling the chair

standing with arms spread and hands gripping desk or table

loud voice or low voice carefully enunciated

standing or walking with hands behind back and chin up

thumbs in lapels


Superior and subordinate:

the superior usually has hand on top in a handshake while the person who is subordinate offers his hand with palm up

the superior makes the motion to terminate the encounter

the superior can violate the subordinate's space, and can express doubt, evaluation, domineering gestures

the subordinate is more likely to signify self–control, anxiety, defensiveness gesture clusters

when putting feet on desk the superior should recognize that subordinates dislike this gesture, superiors pretend to ignore it, and equals take little note of it


Flirtation, courtship:

(lovers and couples) positioning to block out others

preening gestures such as smoothing hair, adjusting clothes

gaze holding

head arching

stroking own thigh or arm (in general, stroking and fondling indicates need for affection, reassurance)


A couple with strained relations avoids touching (withdraw if touch by accident) and are formally polite.

Unmarried (courting) couples tend to stay together at gatherings while married couples tend to pair off with the men all standing together and the women going off together.

In couples where one partner is concerned about the seductiveness of the other, rights of possession are signaled by touching (arm around waist, taking by hand, hand on shoulder).

Open and Closed Gestures

Our gestures oftentimes tell something about us that we are not able or willing to communicate verbally. Here is a partial list of “open” and “closed” gestures

open are present when a person is ready and willing to communicate

closedare present when there may be something standing in the way of honest, complete communication


These gestures can be observed in spouse relationships, parent–child relationships, supervisor–worker relationships, worker–client relationships, and any other time that two people are communicating. Maybe you will discover that your body language has been “telling” on you!


Open Gesture

  • open hands 
  • palms up
  • unbuttoning jacket
  • spontaneous eye contact 
  • smile 
  • leaning forward 
  • relaxed
  • hands away from face 
  • standing straight 
  • feet apart 
  • shoulders squared
  • uncrossed legs 
  • welcoming handshake
  • patting
  • rubbing palms together 
  • affirmative head nods 
  • direct face to face eye contact 
  • calm use of facial movements 
  • body positioned toward other 
  • seating arrangement with no barriers 


Closed Gesture

  • hand covering mouth
  • making fists
  • peering over top of glasses
  • glancing at exit
  • frown
  • leaning back
  • rigid posture
  • looking at floor
  • moving away from the speaker or listener
  • legs crossed, shaking foot
  • fidgeting
  • locked ankles
  • folded arms
  • cold shoulder
  • open palm tapping
  • hand wringing
  • head lowered
  • lack of eye contact
  • staring or eyes closed
  • rocking
  • stalling for time (looking at text messages on phone, clean glasses, etc.)

Nonverbal Tips for Improved Communication

  • Make yourself comfortable with the other. Avoid being too close or too far away physically. (Within two feet is a comfortable range.)
  • Be relaxed and attentive. To gain acceptance lean slightly toward the other. Avoid slouching or sitting rigidly.
  • Maintain frequent eye contact. Avoid staring, glaring, or looking away.
  • Give nonverbal communication while the other is talking, such as a simple nod of approval.
  • Keep gestures smooth and unobtrusive. Don't let them compete for attention with your words. Avoid letting your gestures reveal emotional frustration.
  • Your rate of speech should be average or a bit slower. Avoid sounding impatient or hesitant. Control the tone of your voice. Avoid sounding cold and harsh.
  • Maintain a clearly audible voice—neither too loud nor too soft.
  • Your feet and legs should be unobtrusive. Avoid using them as a barrier.
  • Smile when appropriate; look pleasant and genuine.
  • Stay alert through long conversations. Closing eyes and yawning usually blocks communication.

How do You or Others Come Across Nonverbally?

Answer these questions honestly in your journal after you have had an encounter with a friend, work colleague, partner, spouse or child:

  • Is the message I am saying the message I am feeling? Am I really hearing what the other is saying?
  • Is this person someone with whom I really am interested in communicating? Does this person really want to talk with me?
  • Do I feel bored when I am with this person? Does this person seem to be bored with me?
  • Am I struggling to remain interested in this person? Does this person really share true feelings with me?
  • Would I like to disagree with this person at this time? Does this person want to disagree with me?
  • Am I overreacting to what this person is saying? Does this person overreact to my statements?
  • Do I really want to be here today with this person? Does this person want to be here with me?
  • Does this person threaten me? Do I threaten this person?
  • Does this person trust me? Do I trust myself with this person?
  • Are my feelings about this person coming across? Are the person's feelings about me clear to me?
Nonverbal Silent Role–Play Activity
This activity can be done by two people or it can be done in a group. It is similar to charades. Write down each of the following role–play issues on an index card and shuffle the cards. You and your friend(s) take turns being the “speaker.” The object of the game is for the “speaker” to illustrate the situation on the card selected using nonverbal cues only. The speaker is not allowed to talk. The speaker has a two–minute limit. The “listener(s)” are to guess what the speaker is saying after one minute has gone by and before the two minute limit expires. If successful, the "listener" wins. If the “listener” does not guess correctly by the end of the two minutes, the speaker wins. Take turns until all players have completed a turn as listener and as speaker.
Nonverbal, silent–role plays

Put these scripts on cards:
Act out your:

  • Attitude about the impact of  immigration on the USA
  • Attitude about the two major political parties in the United States
  • Attitude about the United States' manned space shuttle program ending
  • Reaction to the 9-11 attacks on the USA
  • Acceptance of the invitation to be a civilian monitor of the new private space initiatives to get men and supplies into space and up to the International Space Station
  • Attitude about state lotteries
  • Reaction to accepting a lottery award of $5000/week for the rest of your life
  • Reaction to getting a free trip to Disney World/EPCOT
  • Feelings about outlawing all “happy hours" at bars, lounges, and restaurants
  • Opinion on drunk drivers who get into accidents where bodily harm results
  • Attitude about legalizing marijuana.
  • Feelings about the quality of TV programming today.
  • Attitude towards social media such as facebook, twitter and others
  • Feelings about sex and violent crime on TV today
  • Feelings about the state of Education in America today
  • Feelings about TV, video games, computers, cell phones and their impact on the younger generation in the USA
  • Feelings about how much TV a child should watch each day and how much time kids should spend on video games and computer activities
  • Attitude about the quality of movies today
  • Opinion on Americans idolizing movie stars and music personalities
  • Feelings about the efforts of movie stars and music personalities to raise money for charity
  • Reaction to the current trend in popular music
  • Favorite types of music for listening, for entertaining, for romance, and for dancing
  • Feelings about popular music as it regards sex and the use of drugs
  • Feelings about kids watching music videos which promote sex and drugs
  • Thinking about the current trend in teenage clothes and hairstyles.
  • Attitude toward the new/old fashion craze
  • Feelings about vivisection (animals used in laboratory research).
  • Feelings about the state of morality in America today.
  • Feelings about mixing religious and political issues in the election of local, state, and national leaders
  • Feelings about the rise of “fundamentalism” in America today
  • Feelings about the passage of a “Right to Life” amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Opinion on organized religion as it addresses the pressing issues of racial discrimination, world hunger, and bigotry.
  • Attitude about the Debt Ceiling in the USA and its impact on the future for our children and grandchildren
  • Feelings about the way people get along at your place of business.
  • Favorite childhood story or fairy tale
  • Attitude toward support groups in regard to solving your current problems
  • Attitude toward letting others know your feelings
  • Feelings toward your family of origin
  • Attitude about the current problems in your marriage, in your family, on your job (or in school). (Three–part role play, two minutes per topic.)
  • Opinion about this game and the questions to be role played.