A guide to non-verbal communication skills and how to improve them

A guide to non-verbal communication skills and how to improve them
SEEK content teamupdated on 12 December, 2023

How often do you think about the words you say, or the impact they have? Chances are, a lot. But what about your non-verbal communication skills, like your facial expressions, body language and tone? All of these are important to get your intended message across clearly and correctly.

Sometimes, how you say things can be more important than what you’re saying. While your words may be nice, if your non-verbal cues don’t match, it can muddle your message and end up lost in translation. 

In this guide we’ll take you through everything you need to know about non-verbal communication, including tips on how to upskill, build better relationships and nail those job interviews. 

What is non-verbal communication?

Non-verbal communication refers to how we deliver information through unspoken cues. It’s incredibly important, influencing how our words and messages are received by others. There are many types of non-verbal communication, including facial expression, body language, eye contact, and even your physical appearance. 

While the non-verbal communication meaning typically refers to our natural tone, stance and other cues, it’s  a skill that can be honed. But to do so, we need to know why it’s so important and how the different types of nonverbal cues can impact our lives and relationships.

Why is non-verbal communication so important?

Non-verbal communication is important as it impacts how others see and respond to you, shaping your relationships and even influencing your career. How you act, speak and present yourself can help others feel more comfortable with you, trust you and can help build a connection. But it can easily go the other way and lead to a negative perception of what you’re saying, which is why it’s a good idea to develop these non-verbal skills.

The importance of non-verbal communication is as powerful in your personal life as it is in your career. These skills can impact our everyday interactions with friends, family and even  people we meet in passing. 

Nonverbal communication can also be a tool to determine how someone is feeling during a conversation. While we need to be aware of our own cues, by paying attention to other people’s body language or tone, you can more easily pick up on their needs-like if a topic is making them uncomfortable. 

The role of non-verbal communication in our lives

Have you ever wondered how some people seem to be naturally great salespeople or they’re able to connect with people easier than others? Their ‘secret’ is all in their non-verbal communication.

Learning how you sound and look while you speak can help you develop these skills to influence those around you. Doing so also helps ensure your message comes across as authentic. It can help you build a strong relationship with a partner, work well with your team or give a good impression at job interviews. 

If you work in customer service or sales yourself, your non-verbal cues can help people relax and trust you, helping you to sell more or give people a better end result.

It’s good to remember non-verbal communication is just one part of communicating, and goes hand-in-hand with spoken communication. 

How non-verbal communication enhances verbal communication

When you communicate with another person, the listener is often paying attention to the tone of your voice, your gestures and facial expression. This helps them work out what you’re saying, whether you’re invested in the conversation, if you’re telling the truth, and if you’re paying attention to what they’re saying. 

Your non-verbal skills can help enhance your verbal communication, providing extra information and clarity to your message. Our words can become more meaningful and trustworthy when paired with matching non-verbal cues. 

For example, using a light tone can help people know when something is not as serious to you. A firmer tone, on the other hand, will let them know you mean business. Even your hand gestures can help you portray when you’re thinking and open to suggestion-like how crossing your arms can show you’re feeling defensive or closed off to the conversation.

7 types of nonverbal communication

There are 7 different types and examples of nonverbal communications. Exploring each is a good way to learn how you can better present yourself and be a more effective communicator.

1. Facial expressions

You may think you have a poker face at work or home, but in reality your facial expressions can give away exactly how you’re feeling. This can happen even when you’re not aware you’re being watched. It happens subconsciously and is often out of our control-unless you’re playing poker!

A language everyone speaks

One of the best parts about facial expressions is their universal nature. A smile is a smile in any country and culture. And while showing those pearly whites can mean different things, like happiness or embarrassment, other social cues (like the nodding of a head and hand gestures) tell us what that smile means.

Paying attention to micro expressions

Micro expressions are those facial expressions that happen only for a split second. They offer a quick yet direct feed into what’s happening inside that person’s mind. For example, a quick raise of the eyebrows can indicate shock or surprise, even if the person smiles and nods in their reaction. It’s a good idea to note micro expressions, especially if you’re keen to know how the other person is feeling in your conversation.

2. Body language

Have you ever been able to tell that someone’s upset, just by how they’re standing? That’s their body language giving them away, and it can be giving you away too.

What is body language?

Body language refers to the movements we make when we communicate, showing our feelings and emotions. For example, crossing your arms is a universal sign for being uncomfortable and can also make you look unapproachable. Much like how slouching can show a lack of care or that you’re feeling perhaps a little too relaxed and comfortable. 

Avoiding body language mistakes

While body language can be a positive tool, you may be making some body language mistakes without even realising. One of the most common mistakes, particularly in interviews, is not keeping a neutral posture. 

To keep a neutral body position, you want to avoid slouching, crossing your arms, and not leaning too far forward or too far back, all of which can make you look uncomfortable, too laid back, or aggressive. Even how you shake hands is considered body language, with your grip telling if you're confident or nervous. 

TIP: In a job interview, you’re gauged for positivity and how you may fit with the team, so being confident and comfortable through your body language is very important.

3. Eye contact

Eye contact is an important element of non-verbal communication. It helps us focus on what the other is saying, improve understanding, as well as pick up non-verbal cues. It can also be a bit more complicated than looking at their face-for instance, some people may struggle to maintain eye contact due to having a disability. 

Eye contact in different cultures

In Western culture, maintaining eye contact is a way to show interest and care. On the other hand, diverting your eyes may mean you’re embarrassed, or perhaps not being totally honest. However, this isn’t the case elsewhere in the world.

Many cultures in Asia and the Middle East see maintaining eye contact as an aggressive gesture, coming across as though you’re challenging the speaker. Eastern cultures also have gender rules around eye contact. This is where who you make eye contact with, especially if you are interviewing for a role in another country or with someone of another culture, needs important consideration. 

When it comes to eye contact, it’s best to research the culture to learn what is recommended. You may also need to pull from your other interpersonal skills, like empathy, active listening and getting to know people before making assumptions.

4. Tone of voice

The non-verbal aspects of our speech is important, there’s a name for it - paralanguage. This refers to the non-verbal parts of the way we talk, including the intensity, speed, accent and tones of our speech, even including yawns and sighs. 

You may have heard you should avoid saying ‘um’, ‘ah’ or other filler words while you speak, as they can show a lack of confidence. Or how being loud can come across as obnoxious. But paralanguage goes far deeper than this. Gasps, sighs, clearing your throat, changing your tone, the volume of your voice, the words you emphasise and the speed you speak can all give away clues around how you’re feeling. 

To appear confident, trustworthy and in control, you want to maintain a neutral volume and speed, and avoid using filler words. Watching your tone, particularly if you’re upset, is also important in helping you stay in control of your words. 

5. Proxemics and personal space

Everyone has a personal bubble. Some people can be protective of their personal space, for instance, becoming uncomfortable if they’re physically touched during conversation. While others may be okay with a polite gesture or standing close together. 

Proxemics is the name for how space is used in communication, and what the differences in space can mean. However, it can also come down to culture, gender and upbringing.

The cultural differences of personal space

South America, the Middle East and Southern Europe are known as contact countries, where it’s common for people to stand close together and use touch as a form of communication. 

On the other hand, Northern Europe, North America and Asian countries are known as non-contact cultures, and prefer physical distance in their communication. 

So, how do you know how much personal space to give someone? Again, this is where paying attention to your own and others’ non-verbal communication cues is important.  Someone stepping back or crossing their arms may indicate you’re too close, while someone leaning in may mean that you’re too far away. 

6. Touch and haptic communication

Touch is another important element of communication, when used appropriately. It can be a personal preference, and can be influenced by culture, gender and upbringing. 

Using touch as a careful form of communication

Haptic communication is the way humans (and animals) communicate and interact through the sense of touch. It can be a more intimate form of non-verbal form communication, so gauging how to use it is important. 

Between friends and family, a high-five or hug can demonstrate closeness, while a handshake between professionals can be a sign of respect — but again, this can depend on culture. In France, for example, a kiss on both cheeks is considered common when meeting someone, whether you’re familiar with them or not. In Western cultures, touching children on the head can be a sign of acknowledgement, whereas this is disrespectful in Asia, where the head is sacred. 

Even the hand you use in a handshake needs to be considered. In the Middle East, you only want to shake hands, touch or receive with the right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean. If you’re in China, you will want to adopt a lighter handshake than in a Western country, and only use one downward motion in Germany. When in doubt, let the other person take the lead.

It’s also important to note that some professionals, like those in the healthcare and medical industry, require touch. How medical professionals use touch can influence trust and connection. For example, a cautious or hesitant touch may be read as being uncomfortable with a situation, making a patient feel nervous or judged.

7. Appearance and attire

First impressions are everything, right? They sure are-in both your professional and personal life.

But unlike other elements of non-verbal communication, sometimes there are factors of our first impression that we can’t control, like our facial features or skin tone. However, there are still a handful of things we can influence, ensuring we give off the right first impression. 

How your appearance affects a first impression

When meeting someone new, particularly in a professional setting, being clean, tidy and presentable is very important. You’ll want to look like you’ve made an effort, like brushing your hair, having showered (and/or put on deodorant) and wearing a suitable outfit for the occasion. 

Properly dressing to dress codes

Dress codes exist for many reasons. From helping create uniformity to being a sign of respect, adhering to dress codes is another important element of non-verbal communication. It’s even been shown that what you wear to work can increase your productivity. But what do you do with unspoken dress codes?

When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with dress pants and a collared dress shirt, or a knee-length (or thereabouts) dress with a higher neckline. This goes for job interviews, meeting a partner’s family, even weddings and other more formal occasions. 

How to improve non-verbal communication skills

So, how do you improve your non-verbal communication skills? There are many non-verbal communication techniques you can explore and many ways to learn them, from getting feedback from friends or colleagues to courses. If you’re looking for some techniques you can start implementing now, the below will help you get started. 

Building self-awareness

One of the best ways to improve your non-verbal communication skills is to practise self-awareness. While you’re meeting and speaking with people, be aware of any habit you have, like hand gestures, saying ‘um’ or using touch in your communication a bit too much. 

When you’re aware of your body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, you can adjust to back your words and help support your verbal communication skills.

Techniques for building self-awareness

So how do you build these skills? Here are some strategies to help you improve your self-awareness: 

  • Monitor your automatic responses to situations and thoughts. Take note of how your body naturally responds to different social interactions. You may want to use a diary, or make a mental note. 
  • Be more intentional with your responses, including how you stand and present yourself. You may find you need to change your natural response, or take a beat and allow the knee-jerk reaction to pass. 
  • Look in the mirror and watch yourself speak. Do you use lots of facial expressions? Are you emotive with your hands? How is your natural resting face? Put yourself in another person’s shoes and take note of what they might see.
  • They say you are who you spend time with. It’s easy to adopt non-verbal communication techniques from our friends and family - good or not-so-good. Expanding your circle can help you increase these social skills. 

Practising active listening

When someone else is speaking, are you listening to them and understanding what they’re saying, or are you simply waiting for them to finish so you can respond? Active listening is a communication skill that means you’re giving the person your full and undivided attention. It’s a sign of respect and should be used in any and all interactions. 

Techniques to develop your active listening skills

Ways to show you’re actively listening through non-verbal communication techniques includes:

  • Nodding and shaking your head, or otherwise responding appropriately to what they’re saying
  • Smiling, laughing, or frowning— use your facial expressions to show how their words are making you feel
  • Mirroring their expressions and posture to help show a connection
  • Maintaining eye contact, and not breaking it to look away or get distracted by something else

How to become a better listener 

Aside from the general tips to practise active listening, here are some more ideas to help you become a better listener. 

  • Stay focused. Pull yourself out of your thoughts and don’t let your eyes wander to what’s happening around you.
  • Pay attention to their non-verbal cues and what they’re saying with their facial expressions, gestures, body language and more. You may mirror this to create a connection or ask appropriate questions to help them feel understood and heard.
  • Don’t interrupt them. If you have something to say or add, wait until they pause for a few moments. Let the other person express themselves and how they feel.
  • Listen with an open mind. Avoid letting your beliefs, emotions or conclusions interfere with you genuinely listening.
  • Don’t plan what to say next. Listen and respond to get to know more about the conversation, situation or person.
  • Practise. The more you interact with people and make the effort to listen, the more intuitive and natural it will become.

Seeking feedback

There is no better way to improve your communication skills than asking other people for feedback. This is particularly important if you feel as though you didn’t handle a situation as well as you could, or you’re not sure why a person had a particular reaction. You can ask the person if there was something you said or in your non-verbal responses that made them feel or react the way they did, or if there is something they believe you could improve on.

How to ask for feedback about your non-verbal communication

  • Seek feedback with an open mind. If you are going into a feedback conversation wanting to respond or explain, you’re not intending to learn and may come across as defensive.
  • Ask the person to elaborate, if needed. For example, if they say you sometimes come across as intense, ask if they could give you examples so you can try to learn to soften your non-verbal cues.
  • Request feedback from different people in different settings. Professional and personal environments are very different and may elicit different responses, especially if you are more comfortable in one than the other.

Examples of non-verbal communications

Non-verbal communication can be heavily dependent on the situation you’re in. Knowing different non-verbal communication strategies, like the ones below, can help support your verbal communication to get your message across.

Non-verbal communication in job interviews

You’re nervous and want to put your best foot forward-we’ve all been there! Job interviews can be stressful, and interviewers will naturally expect some level of nervousness. However, there are non-verbal communication strategies you can use to appear more confident, even if you’re anxious. These include:

  • Dressing appropriately. If you’re applying for a corporate, office, sales, management or more formal job, you’ll want to opt for a suit, dress pants and shirt, or a nice dress. For trades, retail and less-formal hospitality jobs, you may be able to dress down a little more, opting for more casual dress pants, a collared shirt or a nice dress, like the above. Remember to wear clean dress shoes or a low heel, flats or wedges.
  • Depending on where your job interview is located, greet the interviewer/s with a firm handshake. 
  • Maintaining eye contact throughout the interview. If there are multiple interviewers, make eye contact with the person asking the question and then make eye contact with each during your response.
  • Keeping a neutral posture, sitting up tall and not slouching.
  • Sharing your personality. Don’t be afraid to show a little of yourself, mixing professionalism and personalisation. However, while it’s OK to show how bubbly you are, keep it professional. 
  • Smiling, nodding and mirroring your interviewer’s body language to build a good connection.
  • Slowing down your speech, as nerves can speed up your words.

Non-verbal communication in public speaking

Aside from picturing your audience in their PJs, there are many ways you can calm your nerves and showcase nothing but confidence when speaking in front of an audience. Whether it’s a presentation, giving a speech at a wedding, or speaking at a conference, try these non-verbal communication strategies for public speaking:

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. The more comfortable you are on the topic you’re speaking about, the more confident you will appear. 
  • If you forget your place or become nervous on stage, pause for a moment and take a second to look out on your audience. It will help it appear intentional.
  • Hold eye contact with different people for a few moments at a time. This will help you connect, feel more comfortable, and hold people’s attention.
  • Avoid fidgeting. If you need to do something with your hands, interlock your fingers and rest them in your lap (standing or seated) or hold something in your fingertips, like a presentation remote (a clicker, if you will) or notes.
  • Slow down. Let every word have its moment.
  • Speak from the stomach (or diaphragm). This will help your words carry across a space. 
  • Hold your posture strong. Stand or sit up straight, head high and with confidence.
  • Engage your audience by nodding, using gestures and even mirroring their own responses. You know you have them hooked when they mirror you back.

Non-verbal communication in conflict resolution

Conflict resolution relies on you remaining calm, whether you’re one of the people in a conflict, a mediator or a manager handling a situation. This is the same whether it’s a personal or professional conflict.

Some tips for using non-verbal communication to help with conflict resolution include:

  • Talk with a calm, steady voice. Raising your voice can escalate a situation or show intimidation, while speaking too softly can show you’re not confident. 
  • Avoid crossing your arms, leaning forward or backwards.
  • Maintain eye contact with the person speaking, while being aware your face and body language are not showing any intimidation or aggression.
  • Let everyone speak and do not speak over anyone. If someone is being inappropriate, you can address this if it occurs and even ask if they’d like a moment to calm down.
  • Nod when the other person is speaking. This will help them feel heard and understood.
  • Be aware of your facial expressions, especially your reactions to any unexpected statements.
  • Keep your gestures to a minimum. Gesturing in a higher-stress environment can demonstrate frustration, which can aggravate the situation.

While we are born with and naturally have non-verbal communication responses, we can grow and develop them. Mastering non-verbal communication skills is a life-long journey, as we learn from different people, cultures and experiences. Being self-aware and keeping an open mind can help you face any situation with the right confidence and attitude.


Can non-verbal communication skills be learned or are they innate?

While many non-verbal communication skills, like body language, are innate and natural, they can be developed, like any other skill. To improve your non-verbal communication skills, you will want to focus on non-verbal communication strategies like smiling, tone of voice and gestures to evolve and better support your verbal skills.

How important is non-verbal communication in comparison to verbal communication?

Non-verbal communication skills are as, if not more, important than verbal communication skills. While words are incredibly important, our visual cues can cloud what our ears hear, like whether the person is being genuine or not, can be trusted or if we can build a connection. 

However, when you use the right strategies, your verbal and non-verbal communication skills will work together and help you give the right impression.

Are there any universal non-verbal communication cues?

There are many universal non-verbal cues, from facial expressions and proximity to tone of voice, gestures and even touch. While different cultures will have different preferences, things like smiling, frowning, flailing your hands and getting very close to someone can translate the same. 

For instance, if you need to get someone’s urgent attention or focus, you can wave wildly or get very close to someone. Getting in someone’s face can be seen as aggressive in most cultures, while smiling can help people know you ‘come in peace’.

How can I improve my non-verbal communication skills in virtual settings?

Non-verbal communication skills in a virtual setting are very much like those in person. You still want to consider your facial expressions and gestures, maintain eye contact, sit up straight, dress appropriately for the situation, control your voice and tone, and listen actively, amongst other things. 

Recording and watching yourself back is also a great way to work on your non-verbal communication style and skills. And of course, ask! Seeking feedback is a great way to learn more about yourself and what you may be unintentionally projecting.

How can I tell if someone is lying based on their non-verbal cues?

Non-verbal cues can easily help you identify if someone is lying, from avoiding eye contact to fidgeting. You’ll find their body language or facial expressions may not match their words, and they stutter or stumble when speaking. Someone who is lying will also be defensive or may even show a lack of emotions as they are trying to hide any emotion in case they give themselves away. 

You can even use your own non-verbal communication skills to show you’re uncomfortable or not connecting with them, such as crossing your arms, giving your head a tilt or frowning, and measuring their response. The simple act of not mirroring their nods or showing empathy to them may throw them off their path, helping you decide once and for all whether they are telling the truth. 

How can I improve my ability to read other people's non-verbal cues?

Practice is the number one way to improve your ability to read other people’s non-verbal cues. You can study people and their reactions to your verbal and non-verbal responses. 

If you have any online meetings you’re able to record, watching the recording back will also help you see what you look like in context to a conversation and if your expressions, gestures and other non-verbal cues align with how you feel. 

There are also courses and books to help you improve your ability to read other people’s non-verbal cues. If you’re comfortable doing so, you can also ask people directly for feedback, such as a mentor, friend or family member. 

How can I become more aware of my own non-verbal cues during a conversation?

Being mindful of your own non-verbal cues during conversations is a great way to be aware of how you may be presenting to other people. You can see how the other person responds to your own cues, which may indicate if you are showing the right cues to communicate the right message. Of course, you can ask for feedback about why you may feel the way you did, if you feel you’re not understanding why they reacted the way they did.

However, focusing on your non-verbal cues while in the middle of a conversation can be tricky. This is where you may reflect on past interactions and where people have connected well with you, or maybe didn’t react how you thought they would or should. You can then set goals for improvement, and how you may change your responses if that same situation were to arise again.

What is the role of non-verbal communication in building rapport and trust?

Non-verbal communications play an important role in building rapport and trust by showcasing the emotions behind your words. It goes beyond the words spoken, conveying authenticity, emotions and sincerity, whether that’s through your expressions, posture or the level of attention they feel you are giving. Where your non-verbal communication aligns with your words, and you use the right techniques, you can build greater trust faster.

How can non-verbal communication skills help in conflict resolution?

Your non-verbal communication skills can help defuse or potentially escalate a conflict, so are crucial in resolving conflicts in the workplace and in life. For example, being able to remain calm, neutral and encourage open conversation through your body language, tone, gestures, eye contact and more can help resolve a matter without further conflict. On the other hand, if you weren’t able to control these things, the matter may escalate and end up worse than when it began.

Non-verbal communication can also give you insight into how others are feeling. If they have their arms crossed, are raising their voice, are rolling their eyes, etc. they may not be receptive to what you’re saying and may disagree. By knowing what these non-verbal skills can mean, you can help defuse the situation calmly.

Are there any specific non-verbal cues that indicate interest or disinterest in a conversation?

There are many specific non-verbal cues to keep an eye out for that may indicate someone is losing or has lost interest in your conversation, including:

  • Checking the time, devices or looking around
  • Sighing or being short in response
  • Rolling their eyes and fidgeting
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Blank facial expressions, particularly when an emotion would be a normal response
  • Lacking empathy or being insensitive in their responses
  • Avoiding mirroring, i.e. not reflecting your nods, laughs, etc.
  • Slouching, moving from foot to foot and leaning back excessively
  • Interrupting or talking over you or others
  • Yawning
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