Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

What is communication?  Communication is defined as the transfer of a message from one entity to another.  In order for communication to occur, there must be a sender, a recipient, and a message.

 

Communication occurs via two methods:  verbally and nonverbally

 

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication is the most obvious and easiest to understand its meaning.  This is the transfer of a message through words.  We often simplify the understanding of verbal communication as speaking.  But did you know you can communicate a message by way of writing a letter, which is actually a form of verbal communication?  Even though no words are spoken, a message is transferred from one person to the next.  Sign language is another method where some sources say this is verbal communication.  However, since hand gestures are used to portray the message, many refer to this way as nonverbal communication.

 

Nonverbal communication

During a verbal conversation with an individual, you will often send and receive communication through a variety of gestures and actions.  These actions/gestures are known as nonverbal communication.  Nonverbal communication refers to the transmission of a message by a medium other than speech or writing.  It is estimated that the occurrence of nonverbal communication outweighs that of verbal communications during a normal day.  Below is a discussion of several different ways we communicate nonverbally.

Facial expressions:  When people hear “nonverbal communication”, they automatically think of facial expressions.  This is because our face is the focal point during a verbal conversation, and it is easy to show various emotions with the eyes, mouth, and brows.  Facial expressions can show a person’s feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.

Gestures:  Another very common method of nonverbal communication is that of gestures.  Gestures will most often include the use of a person’s hands but may also be with other body parts.  A nod means “yes”.  Shaking the head means “no”.  A wave of the hand usually expresses “hello”.  A point of the finger indicates “look over there”.  Fingers may be used to communicate numbers.  Even a person gazing at his watch is a gesture expressing his importance on time.

Posture:  How we hold our posture is yet another common form of nonverbal communication.  Posture typically indicates a person’s feelings and attitudes towards a certain situation.  For example, a slouch of the shoulders indicates defeat or tiredness.  Crossed arms indicates defensiveness.  Nail biting shows nervousness.  Finger tapping indicates impatience.  Touching or rubbing the head, ears, or nose may display lying.

Paralinguistics:  This refers to factors of a person’s voice, such as tone, volume, inflection, and pitch.  It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.  Think about when you ask someone if they’re okay, and they respond with “I’m fine”.  If read in a letter or an email, you would assume the person is doing well.  Not great, but also not terrible.  However, depending on how this is said when speaking with a friend will determine just how “fine” she is.  For example, if she responded “I’m fine” in a cold manner and a higher volume, you could assume she is upset about something.  On the other hand, if her tone was somber and gloomy, you might infer that she is sad.

Proxemics:  Proxemics refers to personal space.  When conversing verbally with someone you’ve just met, if they are within inches from you, this indicates they are comfortable with you.  On the other hand, if this new acquaintance is farther away from you, far from your personal space, this may mean they are a bit standoffish.

Eye gaze:  Gestures we do with our eyes when speaking with others displays a form of nonverbal communication.  Eyes can express a variety of emotions, such as interest, hostility, and attraction.  Eye gaze can also be a tell if someone is being honest or not.  For example, when a person looks another directly into the eyes, this is more in line with telling the truth.  Conversely, the inability to maintain eye contact is frequently seen as an indicator of lying or deceit.

Haptics:  Haptics refers to touch and are used to communicate affection, familiarity, sympathy, and other emotions.  When you see an old friend and either shake their hand or give them a hug or a kiss, this means you are familiar with the person and are showing some sort of affection towards them.  A soldier saluting her commanding officer or the nation’s flag is a sign of respect.  Putting a hand on the shoulders or back of someone who recently lost a loved one is a sign of sympathy.  An athlete who pats his teammate on the buttocks indicates a job well done.

Appearance:  Our choices of colors, hairstyles, clothing, and makeup are nonverbal ways of communicating to others.  For example, when a woman is preparing for a first date, she may wear some very attractive clothing, wear more jewelry, spray perfume, get her hair styled, or wear additional makeup to enhance sexual attraction.  A young man may wear his nicest suit, get a clean haircut, and polish his shoes before going on a job interview to show professionalism.

Artifacts:  Artifacts are objects or images used to communicate to others in a nonverbal fashion to express a person’s identity or feelings.  For example, a girl’s avatar on her social media page displaying a cartoon cat with a smile might tell others that she loves cats and is in a happy mood.  A mom showing off pictures on her phone of her daughter graduating from college expresses pride.

 

Final Thoughts on Communication

As dietetics professionals, we need to be mindful of both methods, first as how we are communicating to others, and secondly, how we interpret the messages received.  When counseling clients in an out-patient setting for example, the dietitian should:

  • Wear business clothing to show professionalism (appearance and artifacts)
  • Speak in a comfortable, professional tone (paralinguistics)
  • Make regular eye contact to show attention (eye gaze)
  • Use a smile when greeting the client (facial expressions)
  • Nod or shake her head when appropriate to show agreement or disagreement (gestures)
  • Sit close enough, yet far enough away maintaining a good personal space (proxemics)

The dietitian should interpret the client’s nonverbal communication appropriately, such as:

  • The client shakes the dietitian’s hand when entering, showing respect
  • The client is leaning in towards the dietitian showing an intent to learn or maybe is backing away showing discomfort
  • Are the client’s arms crossed?  Is she looking away?  Is she checking her phone or watch?  These show a disinterest and poor attention span
  • If there is trembling in the client’s voice, this may mean she is upset or nervous
  • If she is speaking softly, she may be shy
  • When asked for the foods the client has eaten yesterday, if she is touching parts of her head when responding, she might not be very truthful with the dietitian