Non-Verbal Communication + Sense Making
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
Those who can effectively feel and interpret nonverbal communication will enjoy greater ease in life than individuals who lack this skill. This is because people who can empathise and experience another’s reality are much better equipped to meet and understand those they’re listening to, as well as themselves, than those who don't. The benefits of this include stronger relationships with others, more meaningful connections with self and more impactful professional interactions. One of the fascinating things about an appreciation for nonverbal behaviour is its universal applicability. Not only are nonverbals everywhere there are humans, they are ubiquitous and reliable.
Once you know what a nonverbal queue means, you can use that information in any number of different circumstances and environments. The crucial thing is to first slow down and realise what sensations are associated with what experiences and actions in others. Seeing people for who (and how) they are is a skill that requires constant practice, patience and compassion. There are three main ways of developing this ability for yourself - observation, recognition and connections.
Being a competent observer of your environment
Concerted observation is essential to meet people and detect nonverbal tells successfully. Being actively engaged in situational awareness can be the make or break when it comes to listening to another successfully or not. Remember, observation is a muscle, use it and test it. To get the best observations, be subtle about it. Spend a lot of time watching people interacting and observe the anomalies. This might sound odd, but it really helps you develop this skill far more effectively than reading up on human behaviour - after-all this is mostly analytical anyway. From this place, you’ll be better equipped to see and feel people for who they really are and maybe even establish some more meaningful contact with them as a result.
Like learning all things, patience and practice is key. If you’re feeling confident, you might also like to test your hypotheses with those you know in an open and non-judgemental way. For example, “I notice when you talk about that person, your eyes light up and that makes me feel happy. Does that make sense to you?”. This is a very simple example, but you get the point. Through observation you can get really good at forming valuable hypotheses about people before you engage with them. But a caution: don’t get too attached to your own hypothesis!
Learning to recognise universal nonverbal behaviours
Many behaviours are considered universal as they are exhibited similarly by everyone. The more of these you can recognise and accurately interpret, the more effective you will be in assessing the intentions of those around you. While more on the impression managements spectrum, being able to detect behaviours, or behaviour clusters, allows you to get into a person’s reality and see the world as they do. For example, you might see someone smile when they greet you, but when they turn to walk away their face turns stoney cold. The eyes are also very telling here. With this person, one might be curious how much their smile came from a place of emotional warmth versus a cognitive learnt response to a social impulse. This is all information for you to gather and hold lightly as you begin to understand what people mean when they are with you.
Look for changes in behaviour that are connected to changes in thoughts, emotions or intent
Sudden changes can reveal how a person is adapting to emotional events. e.g. An adult will act differently if they expect something that is no longer available. Changes in a person’s behaviour can reveal a lot about their situational intentions. When someone goes through an emotional change, their body will show signs of this too. The wonderful thing about these changes is that we can feel them in our own bodies. Sounds weird but it’s true. Natural empaths feel these changes literally in their body whenever they’re with someone. If you were stressed out around an empath, they’d feel this also. If you feel angry because someone has wronged you, they’re likely to pick this up.
Not everyone is an empath however, and that’s not an issue. You can practice the skill of feeling another’s reality by meditating in silence, or simply sitting still noticing how your body feels in a calm state. From here, you can begin to gather data about different places and people when you next meet them - allowing you to compare how you feel in isolation with how you feel in other places.
This can contain some valuable insights. Be warned with this however - not all that you might experience is useful information. Expect a lot of noise in your first few years on this path - both from the outside world and from yourself. The best way to experiment with this is simply to notice and document - not attaching to whatever seems to be trending and equally not judging experiences as good or bad.
It can be all too tempting in the early years to assume all that is felt as good is from self and all that is bad from another. If you notice these judgements arising, be mindful of them and, if they persist, seek professional help.