There's no way around it — humans are pack animals. Our success as a species and as individuals depends upon our ability to effectively communicate, both verbally and non-verbally.
Just ask our ancestors, who hunted and gathered as a collective, depending upon one another for protection, sustenance and companionship.
As it was the case with them, today, verbal and non-verbal communication shape our interactions with others in business and interpersonal relationships, as well as our financial and personal success and our physical and psychological well-being.
Understanding the different aspects of verbal and non-verbal communication and the important roles they play in our interactions with others is the first step to enhancing positive communication and nurturing relationships.
What is Verbal Communication?
Verbal communication is an all-encompassing term for communication involving words — whether they're spoken, written or signed.
The conversations we have with our coworker at lunch, the morning news or the sports page we read in the morning — even the text message you send to your spouse telling him to pick up some milk — is a form of verbal communication.
Our ability to communicate with a language that is based on an organized system of words, rather than merely sounds, is what sets us apart from lower species. Not only do we have language, but we also have the technology that enables us to communicate with one another, no matter the physical distance.
Why is Verbal Communication Important?
We use verbal communication to inform, whether it is to inform others of our needs or to impart knowledge. Clarification is a key component of verbal communication.
Often, we do not articulate ourselves clearly, or our words or actions are misconstrued. Verbal communication helps to clarify misunderstandings and provides missing information.
Verbal communication can be used to correct a wrong, where powerful words are more effective than an action. It can also be used as a tool of persuasion and creates opportunity for debate, stimulates thought and creativity and deepens and creates new relationships.
In the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences article "The Psychology of Verbal Communication," Robert M. Krauss explains, “A species’ survival depends critically upon its ability to communicate effectively, and the quality of its social life is determined in large measure by how and what it can communicate.”
What is Non-Verbal Communication?
Verbal communication coexists alongside non-verbal communication, which can affect people’s perceptions and exchanges in subtle but significant ways.
Non-verbal communication includes body language, such as gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and posture. Touch is a non-verbal communication that not only indicates a person’s feelings or level of comfort, but illustrates personality characteristics as well.
A firm handshake or warm hug indicates something very different than a loose pat on the back or a timid handshake does. The sound of our voice, including pitch, tone and volume are also forms of non-verbal communication.
The meaning behind someone’s words is often entirely different than the literal translation, as is seen in instances of sarcasm and mockery. The clothing we wear and the way we design our living space are also forms of non-verbal communication that frequently shape people’s judgments about others, regardless of whether or not the perceptions are true.
Why is Non-Verbal Communication Important?
Think of how many relationships start with a man and woman making eye contact across a crowded room. A playful wink tends to be more effective than a well-thought out pick-up-line.
In his book, "Bodily Communication," Michael Argyle identifies five main functions of non-verbal communication: to express emotions, communicate interpersonal relationships, support verbal interaction, reflect personality and perform rituals, such as greetings and goodbyes.
"The Importance of Effective Communication" paper by Edward G. Wertheim, PhD., details how non-verbal communication interacts with verbal communication: We can reinforce, contradict, substitute, complement or emphasize our verbal communication with non-verbal cues such as gestures, expressions and vocal inflection.
Avoiding eye contact when we tell someone we love them communicates something far different than do spoken words, just as a bright smile when we say congratulations reinforces the sincerity of our words.
How to Improve Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Verbal communication is enhanced when a person is an effective listener. Listening doesn’t simply mean hearing; it necessitates understanding another person’s point of view.
Take the time to think before you speak to ensure that you articulate yourself clearly. Let other people interject and have the floor. Allow time for reflection on the subject at hand.
Watching other people’s body language, facial expressions and intonations, and being conscious of your own physicality and feelings can enhance non-verbal communication.
Record yourself with both a video camera and an audio recorder to see how you communicate non-verbally. Are your gestures matching your words, or giving away what you’re really thinking?
Being aware of what we say and how we say it is the first step to successful communication. The ability to adapt quickly to the situation and form of communication at hand is a skill that people continue to hone for a lifetime.