Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nonverbal Communication Essay

The definition of nonverbal communication can be as short or as elaborate and specific as one wants to make it. In general – the nonverbal communication describes any and all communication that occurs outside the realm of written or spoken words and is expressed by generation of either intentional or subconscious cues and their recognition. Commonly, nonverbal communication is divided into subcategories describing individual areas that transmit communication cues. These areas, among others, include kinesics, paralanguage, proxemics, haptics, oculesics, and physical appearance. Understanding and effective application of nonverbal communication skills is becoming increasingly important in the modern world of business for various reasons. The number of studies suggests that nonverbal cues have a significant effect on sales by creating a filter through which the following information is perceived (Leigh 1). Managers must also be efficient not only in understanding the dynamics of nonverbal communication by their employees, but also in determining how customers interpret the employees nonverbal cues (Sundram 2).

Types of Nonverbal Communication
The purpose of this report is to examine the significance of the nonverbal communication in the business setting. The topics discussed include: types of nonverbal communication, the importance of recognition and use of nonverbal communication elements, potential problems with nonverbal communication and solutions for effective nonverbal communication.

Kinesics, meaning - body movements, represents one of the largest areas of “ “leakage” – signals that escape from a deceptive interviewee despite his or her attempts at control.” (Waltman 1). One must realize, however, that “leakage” is not limited to interview subjects, but is natural human behavior (Waltman 1). In turn, torso movements, gestures and facial expressions are commonly viewed as the most important areas of kinesics in terms of generation of nonverbal cues that, when combined with other cues as well as context, suggest a meaning to what is being communicated (Sunduram 4). Ray L. Birdwhistell, in his research, also stresses that kinesic communication must be viewed in terms of “contextual meaning” (Jolly 6). Additional benefit of using “contextual meaning” in interpretation of nonverbal cues is realized when trying to read a skilled communicator (Jolly 6). Experienced presenters can control their facial expressions and eye contact to reduce or, perhaps, prevent altogether the amount of leakage (Waltman 3). Therefore, by analyzing the context as well as the separate cues, one is more likely to perceive the true picture. William Nolen, in his advice to the auditors, suggests that based on previous studies “synchronization of kinesic cues, such as rhythmic hand gesturing and head nods, heightens the perception of credibility. Synchronous displays are perceived as more competent, composed, trustworthy, extroverted, and sociable than dissynchronous displays” (Nollen 2-3).

In addition to general kinesics, oculesics – eye movement and behavior, is widely considered to be “single most powerful and persuasive way to gain attention and win approval” (Raudsepp 3). The behavior of a person’s eyes can either strengthen what is being communicated verbally, or diminish the importance or credibility of the subject. In American culture, a direct eye contact translates into confidence, competence and honesty (Raudsepp 3). On the contrary, in other cultures a direct eye contact with superiors may be considered as daring or disrespectful. Such cultural nuances are incredibly important in the modern global business environment, where many cultures, traditions and customs often existing side by side. Another important factors influencing eye contact are – relative heights of the people involved in the interaction and the distance between the individuals. The height gives the taller person a benefit of position of control or power and requires the shorter person to maintain eye contact because of the lack of power over the interaction. The proximity of interacting parties also tends to enhance the importance and intensity of the eye behavior simply because one is more aware of eye contact at closer range (Abrams 1).

Study of space as a part of nonverbal communication - referred to as proxemics – further analyses physical and psychological space between individuals in the interaction (Abrams 2). Proxemics could be divided into the elements of territory and personal space. Territory refers to the general area in which the interaction occurs, while personal space is just that – a space immediately around a person. (Nolen 5) One of the most important elements of proxemics is the study of haptics or – in more conventional terms - touch. According to various researches, touch “enhances one’s interpersonal involvement, positive affect, social attachment, intimacy, and overall liking” (Sundaram 7). “The persuasive power of touch is further evident in the findings of Patterson et al. (1968) stating that people tend to associate positive characteristics with the individual who touched them” (Sundaram 7). In case of proxemics, the “leakage cues” may or may not be obvious (Waltman 3). In a non-familiar business setting a person cannot do much to change the territory, however, smaller actions, such as shifting a chair or placing a briefcase on his or her lap, can suggest the true feeling or intentions of that person (Waltman 3).

Yet another important aspect of nonverbal communication is voice. Vocal characteristics of one’s speech – the paralanguage – that include volume, rate, pitch and pronunciation are one of the most crucial factors in contributing or reducing the speaker’s credibility. One of the most popular beliefs, which has been confirmed by various studies in communication, suggests that a loud, strong voice transmits confidence (Fatt 2). Combinations of various elements of the paralanguage are attributed to different styles of speech, and, thus, provoke different feelings and perceptions in listeners. According to one of the studies, the conversation style, which includes slower rate, lower pitch and volume and less inflection, presented the speaker as being trustworthy, pleasant and friendly. In the same study the public speaking style, which includes higher pitch, vocal intensity and inflection, was said to portray dominance, dynamism and competence (Sundaram 6).

The last aspect of nonverbal communication discussed in this research is physical appearance. Although, in the greater sense, attractiveness describes characteristics that go beyond the physical appearance alone (Gabbot 4), physically attractive people are perceived as “more persuasive (Chaiken, 1979), successful in changing attitudes (Kahle and Homer, 1985), and are perceived to be warmer, more poised, and more socially skilled than less attractive people (Chaiken, 1979)” (Sundaram 8). The way one dresses is also an important element of physical appearance as a source of nonverbal cues, in big part because a person has much more control over his or her clothes, as opposed to the features of the face or the body size. In the recent decade the business world in US has seen various degrees of acceptance of the business casual dress code either as an alternative or as an addition to the traditional business attire (McPherson 1-2).

The Importance of Recognition and Use of Nonverbal Communication Elements
Importance of effective recognition of the nonverbal cues is difficult to overestimate. According to popular scholarly beliefs, between 60 and 93 percent of the meaning in the interaction may be generated by the nonverbal aspects of communication (Leigh 2). Some break it down even further stating that “people respond to body language 55 percent of the time, tone of voice 38 percent of the time, and actual words a mere 7 percent” (Arthur 2). As business organizations and interactions become more and more complex, the room for error diminishes greatly and the difficulty of obtaining and maintaining the competitive edge become increasingly important. Areas of sales, consulting, auditing, investment banking and many others where primary business revolves around client interaction, information acquisition and analysis, and persuading individuals are the ones that must be extremely effective in nonverbal communication. For example, a sale manager communicating with a new client over the telephone can benefit from skillful utilization of paralanguage, because the initial call creates a base on which the future interaction and is built (Leigh 1). In the service industry, the recognition and acceptance of nonverbal communication can too benefit the employees as well as the business process in general. Customer satisfaction depends on more than just adequate execution of the service, it also includes the nonverbal context of what is being done or said. Managers who realize the significance of the nonverbal aspect of communication and effects it has on the success of the business interaction will be able to seek out individuals with better developed nonverbal communication skills and integrate them in the optimal position of the business process (Gabbot 9).

Potential Problems with Nonverbal Communication
In addition to the benefits of nonverbal communication, some problems exist as well. As the research suggests, little correlation exists between one’s self-rated accuracy of decoding of the nonverbal cues and the actual performance (DePaulo 239). Some individuals also tend to concentrate more on their strongest areas of nonverbal communication while neglecting the other aspects. As in the example presented by Diane Arthur, the kinesic cues, contradictory to other verbal and nonverbal behavior, significantly undermined the credibility and effectiveness of the presenter (Arthur 2). Another problem area within the realm of nonverbal communication is the ambiguity of generated and transmitted cues. Since the appropriate meaning and interpretation of nonverbal cues are highly contextual in nature, the same gestures, facial expressions or posture can and do mean different things in different interaction environment and settings. Often, perceivers tend to venture farther than available context allows and interpret the signals according to their mental map, or to put it in other word - their previous knowledge, experience, stereotypes and others perceptual filters. Problem is further escalated due to the natural tendency of humans to be overly confident of the purely subjective judgments reached according personally-relevant information (Druckman 178). This idea develops into yet another obstacle in the interpretation of body language. Differences in cultural backgrounds of those involved in the interaction may interfere with correct decoding the encoded message. Most common cultural differences would probably be in kinesics. For example, a nod in the United States, as well as in many other cultures, signifies understanding or agreement. However, in the Middle East, a single nod represents disagreement or rejection (Arthur 2). Similarly, other commonly used gestures or other aspects of nonverbal communication may have completely different meanings in various cultures. With this said, one must realize that the term culture does not refer to the various ethnic and geographical groups exclusively. Culture can describe anything from sex to interorganizational culture. Therefore, in order to correctly decode the nonverbal cues one must not only analyze the ones that are relative to the context of what is being communicated, but also to attempt to interpret them in light of the decoder’s cultural background. The task of understanding nonverbal cues clearly is extremely complex and misunderstandings are common.

Solutions for Effective Nonverbal Communication
At least partial solutions to the problems of nonverbal communication can and should be implemented in the business organizations of today through training, analysis and practice. Managers, as the trained professionals and business leaders are responsible for the training and, partially, for analysis aspects of the solution. In addition, each individual is responsible for continuing analysis and practice of his or her nonverbal skills. The managers can aid the employees and coworkers by explaining and ensuring that the employees understand the significance of nonverbal side of communication process. Initially training seminars or classes should be offered to everybody and later readily available for anyone who needs them. Constant feedback is also crucial to ensure continuous learning and analysis process (Sundaram 12). William Nolen cites examples of George Patton and Richard Nixon practicing their facial expressions in order to appear more determined or trustworthy. They realized the importance of nonverbal communication in portraying the desired image. Not unlike U.S. General and U.S. President, today’s business people must portray a number of images depending on the situation and their field (Nolen 1). Therefore, one must not only understand the importance of nonverbal communication and be able to recognize them, but also to be continuously improving one’s own nonverbal behavior.

From the information presented, the importance of the nonverbal communication in modern business is obvious. The fact that a great number of successful CEOs, auditors and sales people refer to psychology of human behavior as one of the most useful non-business skill they posses demonstrates the vitality of using such skill appropriately and effectively. Employees empowered by this analytical tool are more likely to accomplish better results, avoid unnecessary confusion which may result in delays, sell the product or close an important deal simply because they are one step ahead of the game. Companies as a whole can create a corporate structure that conforms to the company’s business model and promotes it via the employees into the markets. Although, some aspects of the nonverbal communication still lack sufficient empirical research to be interpreted conclusively, its benefits obviously can and should be utilized as much as possible on various levels of modern business environment. It could be as beneficial on the micro level – the individual’s self analysis and continuous improvement of his hand gestures during presentations – for example, as it could be on the greater scale, perhaps – the development of corporate image through the marketing campaign.
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