How Does Nonverbal Communication Affect Relationships?

Businessman standing in hallway of office, arms crossed
A young man standing with his arms folded. (Image: Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Most of us remember cringing as children when our mothers gave us that look -- the look that meant we were in deep trouble. She didn't have to say a word. And even if she did say a word -- even if it was kind -- you could probably still tell you were in trouble because the brain processes both verbal and nonverbal communication at the same time and notices when someone's words don't match their body language. A wealth of emotions can be conveyed with a look, a sigh, a smile or a tilt of the head. Nonverbal communication is not just something we do to show how we are feeling, but we also depend on our interpretations of it when we interact with each other.

Creates Conflict

Nonverbal communication includes body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, all of which can be misinterpreted. When nonverbal cues are misinterpreted, it can create conflict in a relationship. For example, if you share a deep secret with your best friend, and she frowns at you, you might interpret that as disapproval -- even though she may have been frowning in concentration. If you cross your arms while talking to your boss, you might just be cold -- but your boss might see that as a sign that you disagree with him. If you speak to your lover in a sarcastic tone, he might become defensive -- even if the actual words spoken were not accusatory.

Causes Discomfort

Nonverbal communication can also cause you to feel uncomfortable around another person, even if the communication is not misinterpreted. For example, if your friend stands very close to you to hear you talk, you might feel as if he is invading your personal space. If your partner's tone of voice seems sarcastic, but his words aren't, you still might feel like he is making fun of you. The important thing to remember is that most of the time, it isn't intentional. Much of our nonverbal communication is unconscious. In some cases, we don't meant to do it, but we can't really communicate effectively without it.

Increases Closeness

Nonverbal communication can be incredibly reassuring. A warm smile thrown your way when you are trying to apologize for something, a light touch on your arm when you are sharing something difficult, a soft tone of voice or even a step toward you are all ways that nonverbal communication can increase closeness between two people in a relationship. This type of nonverbal communication complements the message the speaker is trying to convey.

Enhances Understanding

When nonverbal communication is used to accent a message, it can enhance understanding. If you are in a negotiation with a coworker, and you see him nodding, this is a clue that you are probably on the right track. If your boss is telling you about something he feels strongly about, and he pounds the desk for emphasis, this is an indication that you should take what he's talking about seriously. If your significant other tells you he is fine with you going away for the weekend, but his voice is shaky and he is frowning, you might want to probe a bit further because these things tell you that there is something else going on with his feelings about your trip. In most cases, nonverbal communication is not something that is easy to fake, according to HelpGuide.org, so it's important to pay attention to what the body, tone of voice and facial expressions are telling you.

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