During college, I took a few communications courses and enjoyed them immensely. My absolute favorite, however, was “Nonverbal Communication.”
You always hope that, after spending mega bucks on a college education, at least some of what you learn eventually comes to good use. Well, I got way more than my money’s worth from the class on nonverbal communication.
It’s an odd term as, generally, we think of communication as synonymous with conversation. That’s true in part, but not all. Communication takes places in many forms and we express ourselves without words all the time.
In fact, we’re constantly “speaking” with the way we dress, walk, sit, stand, gesture, make facial expressions and even breathe.
For example, a gentleman with whom I once worked would take a deep breath, cross his arms and turn slightly to the side whenever I initiated a conversation with him. Often, he’d do the same when I began to respond to a question he had asked me.
Without saying a word, he communicated volumes. His breathing, posture and gesture told me that he wasn’t interested in what I had to say. So, I curtailed conversations with him. It was hurtful and humiliating to receive that kind of response.
When I’m in group discussions, I can tell who’s engaged and who’s disengaged. Those who are in agreement with what’s being discussed or presented tend to sit up straight and slightly forward. Those who disagree tend to slouch into the chair with arms and/or legs crossed.
Toe tapping generally suggests impatience and long sighs usually indicate boredom or suppressed disagreement.
Something as seemingly inconsequential as the colors you choose to wear communicate something about you as well. In terms of professionalism, dark colors tend to project power and sophistication. Colorful outfits – as I was taught in class – can make you appear pretentious. That’s why I was counseled to wear a dark business suit to job interviews.
Those are just a few simple examples of how nonverbal communication works. There’s a whole array – a veritable encyclopedia – of what the various actions and positions and combinations thereof mean.
From that class, I learned how to “read” people and developed a pretty good sense for how others were responding to me or a situation at hand. As a result, I’m constantly observing and assessing the nonverbal cues of the folks I with whom I interact.
It also taught me to observe and assess my own nonverbal cues.
As a Christian, I’m called to imitate Christ in all things. That includes the way I communicate nonverbally. If I truly want to reflect our Lord, I’ll watch the way I gesture, posture, dress (in terms of modesty vs. immodesty) and, yes, even the way I breathe, when interacting with others.
That can be tough. Most often, we send out nonverbal signals without even realizing it.
Only with persistent self-discipline and lots of prayer can we really control what our bodies are saying.
This is my go-to Scripture passage in relation to nonverbal communication. It’s from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:3-8).
Humbly regard others as more important than yourselves. That’s the perfect rule of thumb, pun intended, for all our communication – verbal or nonverbal.
(Fenelon, a mother of four, and her husband, Mark, belong to the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee. Visit her website: www.margefenelon.com.)