What’s the biggest daily problem in organizations? Communication. What could have prevented many of the recordable incidents that occurred last year at your facility? Better communication. Communication makes the world go ’round.

When we typically think of communication, we think of reading, writing, speaking, and listening — powerful channels for sending and receiving information. But in this column I want to explore another powerful means of sending and receiving information — nonverbal communication, commonly called “body language,” though there is more to it than that.

Think about it. If you look and sound angry when you say, “I am angry,” people will get that you really are angry. You can also send mixed signals. If you look and sound angry when saying, “I’m not mad at you,” people may well be confused — and are far more likely to believe the nonverbal message than the verbal one.

Shaping & coloring

At least three forms of nonverbal signaling shape and color the way your verbal message is interpreted in one-on-one communication:
  • Kinesics: Standing versus sitting, arms folded or open, hands in pockets or hands on hips, facing or turning away, smiling or frowning are all kinesic signals — body language. They are observed and interpreted by the receiver, both consciously and unconsciously.

    Kinesic cues can stand alone to communicate meaning — shaking your head to signal disagreement. Or they can support a spoken message — nodding along while saying, “Yes, I understand.”

    Eye contact is one of the most potent kinesic cues. When someone doesn’t “look us in the eye” as we’re talking to him or her we might infer they’re bored, rude, perhaps hiding something. Then again, when someone makes excessive eye contact (stares at us) we can feel uncomfortable, perhaps threatened.
    In both cases, the specific interpretation depends on the context of the communication, the words and other nonverbal cues that accompany either no eye contact or too much.

  • Paralanguage: Tone and volume of voice, vocal emphasis on certain words, pausing, laughing, crying are paralanguage cues, the contextual “music” that goes along with the words.

    We can pick up paralanguage cues in a telephone conversation. A simple “hello” over the phone can convey volumes about how the unseen speaker is feeling — giddy or gloomy.

    Research supports the idea that teachers can strongly impact their students’ self-confidence by the tone of voice they use when communicating with them. Tone can convey confidence and encouragement, disinterest or doubt. It’s the same for others in authority, including bosses. Powerful stuff indeed.

  • Proxemics: The use of space and distance in communication comprises proxemic cues. In western culture, most one-to-one communication occurs at an interpersonal distance of roughly two feet. Get further away than that and you can come off as distant, maybe aloof. Get closer and you’re “in someone’s grill,” an altogether different vibe.

    Think of how we arrange space when communicating. Do we erect or remove barriers? To promote more relaxed and less formal communication, managers are encouraged to move out from behind their desks (authority barrier), maybe sit close to their visitor around a small table, etc.

Don’t limit your leadership

In general terms, nonverbal communication has to do with packaging and marketing a message. The three powerful nonverbal cues described here occur in clusters, not in isolation. A boss who must reprimand an employee is likely to look serious, use a more formal tone, and maybe stay behind the desk. He’s packaging and marketing his message, wouldn’t you say?

What is the takeaway message for safety professionals? To be an influential communicator, it’s critical that your nonverbal signals be strong, and match and underscore your verbal message. I do a lot of work in the area of leadership and development, and I often find talented individuals who are weak in nonverbal communication skills. It limits their effectiveness as leaders.

Think about the parts of your role that require that you engage, inspire, and energize others. How does a person who truly “cares about safety and cares about people” look and sound when leading a safety meeting? If that “leader” is standing some distance away from the others, looking down (little or no eye contact) and reading a prepared text in a quiet, monotone voice, how effective is the message?

If you are correcting a safety problem, and perhaps having to give constructive criticism about unsafe acts to a member of your team, how do you look and sound? Are you projecting an engaged, concerned, serious (without being angry and aggressive) demeanor? Or do you seem disengaged, or uncomfortable and unsure of yourself in such an interaction?

The right nonverbal signals send the verbal message “express mail, special delivery.” Package and market your message for maximum impact.