Perfecting Nonverbal Communication

Issue 63

Perfecting Nonverbal



Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz

Copyright © 2011,Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz, All Rights Reserved




Every day, whether we realize it or not, we observe nonverbal communication. We are able to understand more about the people we come into contact with because of this observation. Years ago, when I was a women’s crisis center volunteer, I learned the best way to listen to a person is by observing their whole body. Watch people’s eyes. Do they shift? Do they look down? Watch their hands. Are they wringing them? Rubbing them? Scratching at their bodies?

Watch their feet. Are they tapping them? Are they crossed? At the ankles? Across the knee? What each of these actions does, is tells us about the person to whom we are listening.


A study by researchers Mehrabian and Wienerfollowing suggests only 7% of a message is sent through the spoken word, while 93% of is nonverbal. Of that nonverbal communication, 55% consists of body language and 38% a person’s tone of voice.


Margaret Fisk, a nonverbal communication instructor at Forward Motion defines nonverbal communication as "composed of both voluntary and involuntary interactions that do not have an articulate verbal component. I put that qualifier because a grunt would be closer to a shrug than a statement." As writers, we have trained ourselves to be observant, to listen to other people’s conversations, to watch how people interact with each other, and to be aware of our surroundings. To perfect nonverbal communication, you must train yourself to be aware of more than just the spoken words of others. You must learn to watch for everything from the lift of an eyebrow to the tapping of a foot as people communicate.


A while back, I had an opportunity to watch the movie Babel without any subtitles for the foreign language scenes. My first reaction was, what are these people saying? As I watched, however, I realized I could actually interpret much of what was said, merely by observing how the characters interacted. A fist raised and shaken indicated anger. Someone looking up at another indicated subservience. Tears and hands folded in supplication indicated pleading. Later, as I again watched Babel, but this time with the subtitles, I found I was amazed by how much I had actually understood.


What about you? Do you think you could determine what two people were discussing, if you couldn’t hear, but could only observe them? This is where you should start your practice to perfect your nonverbal communication skills. Once you can do this, you can incorporate these same techniques into your own writing. You will no longer need to rely on tags like "he nodded," "she stood with her arms akimbo," or "he flinched."


I now have a small notebook and pen which I carry with me. If I have an opportunity to observe people in a discreet manner, I will. I try to take notes on facial expressions. I look at their posture and if they are touching. Is the person smiling, grimacing, or licking their lips? Is he pulling on the other’s person’s arm? Is she batting her eyelashes? Each of these movements later helps me to flesh out my own characters with appropriate nonverbal cues. In my office, I transfer these notes to cards in a 3 x 5 file. I have divider tabs marked: eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, proximity, touching, tone of voice, appearance, hair style, clothes and breathing. When I want to accurately portray a character, I look to these cards for guidance.


Researchers have noted that there are six main types of facial expressions which are universal around the word. Margaret Fisk, an instructor at Forward Motion, states there are "three zones of facial expression: Zone 1 - forehead and eyes; Zone 2 - nose and cheeks; Zone 3 - mouth." In general, you can use facial expressions to signify fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust. When people are happy, they smile, their cheeks are raised and their eyes are round. If they are disgusted, their noses wrinkle, their eyes are lowered, and eyebrow and upper lip are raised. If they are afraid, people’s mouths open and the fear shows in their eyes. When angry, eyebrows will lower and people tend to stare intensely. If surprised, people’s faces will show raised eyebrows, wide open eyes and an open mouth. If there is sadness, it will show around the eyes and a down-turned mouth.


In addition to facial expressions, nonverbal communication can be shown through a person’s walk, their stance, and how they sit. An angry person might stomp their feet, while a sad person might shuffle or stumble. A confident person would stand tall with shoulders back, while one who is unsure will slump their shoulders and allow their head to sag forward. Someone who is anxious might sit at the edge of their chair, while someone relaxed will lean back. People who are among friends tend to be more relaxed than those who are among strangers.


Postures and gestures can indicate attitudes, approval, deception, etc. For example if someone was saying, "No, you don’t understand," they might raise their hands, look down and shake their head from side to side. How one sits, stands, slouches, bends, and holds or moves their body gives nonverbal cues.


Eyes have been said to be the mirror to a person’s soul. They can also be used to help define your character. Are they hard as steel or glistening with tears? Direct eye contact will show your character to be honest, credible and confident. If your character looks down or off to the side or refuses to look directly at someone, he will be perceived to be dishonest, unsure, and untrustworthy.


Proximity is another nonverbal communication device. Distances which range between touching and eighteen inches will show your characters have an intimate relationship - or, perhaps, one character wishes he had such a relationship. Between 18" and four feet, your characters show they know each other as personal good friends. From four feet to 12 feet, your characters will be casual social friends. Vertical distance will also give nonverbal clues to your characters. A king will look down from his throne on his subjects. A slave will look up at her master. Vertical distance indicates degrees of subordination.


Touching can show encouragement, express affection, or show emotional support. A coach may pat his forward on the back. A mother will hug her child. Sisters hold each other’s hands during a crisis.


Vocal intonation can offer nonverbal cues as well. For example, "I’m sorry," can be said with sincerity or it can be sneered with sarcasm. The same could be true of "Thank you." "Sit," could be a command or a request. When a person is angry, his voice raises. A deep, cultured voice may indicate someone of refinement and good taste.


As a writer, you can also use your scene to add nonverbal cues. Does your character live in an exclusive penthouse or under a bridge? Will she meet her contact in a public space or a dark alley? Will he teach students in the classroom or on the streets? If a character is allowed to choose a setting, it can show a good deal about that character. If the character then deviates from what is expected, this too will show something about the emotional state of the character. Allowing someone or something else to dictate the scene can also give your reader nonverbal cues.


There is a new FOX television show, Lie to Me. The premise of the show is based on the fact that it is possible to tell whether someone is lying simply by their facial expressions and body language. While watching TV may not be high on your list of things to do, this particular show offers insight into nonverbal communication. The main characters solve cases by studying suspects’ faces, postures and gestures. There are breakdowns of how they determine what a suspect is thinking by showing actual photographs of prominent figures displaying those same nonverbal cues, such as anger, hostility, embarrassment, and denial.


I asked Ms. Fisk how does the use of nonverbal communication improve a story. She said, "If you, the author, have to explain how each character feels about each possible event to the reader, it disrupts the tale you're trying to tell. It also removes a level of subtlety... There's a level of politeness that is hard to maintain when you must constantly state your needs or preferences verbally rather than signaling them, and you will monopolize the conversation. It's the same in a story."


Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a Nonverbal Communication Workshop presented by Margaret Fisk at Forward Motion Writer’s Community ( ) Ms. Fisk told us in her introductory comments "most people act on body language and nonverbal cues by instinct rather than a conscious understanding. As writers, we need to take this ability two steps further. Not only do we have to be able to recognize nonverbal communication, but we also need to replicate it in the written word such that readers react with the same instincts they use in everyday life."


During the workshop, Ms. Fisk commented on parts of my story, "The Stag," which is in progress. Her comments in italics will illustrate the nonverbal segments of the story.


"Jarek entered the fortress. He glanced into the shadows and put a hand to his sword’s hilt." This is a perfect indication of his reaction.


"Ariam waited for him by the king’s meeting room. Two burly guards stood by Ariam’s side. Having been called, Jarek had no choice but to appear. He glared at Ariam, as he approached." Sets the scene for a conflict between the two.


"Ariam smiled thinly at him, and Jarek responded with a nod." Good nonverbal interaction.


"They entered the meeting room together flanked by the guards. The king’s throne sat in the middle of the room. Guards lined the walls, their faces hard, their hands clenched around their lances." Nice grounding in the space and the general mood.


"Jarek swallowed and wiped his palms against his trews." Again, clear emotions.


"A smile crossed Ariam’s mouth and an air of confidence showed in the firmness of his step." Good connection.


"Jarek lifted his chin, drew his shoulders back and straightened his stance." This shows the moment he refuses to be cowed, when he stands up for his convictions.


As you can see from Ms. Fisk’s comments, the use of nonverbal communication in this segment of my story sets the scene and shows the emotions of the two characters. With practice, you too can add these nonverbal cues to your writing.


Ms. Fisk offers these tips to help you increase your awareness of nonverbal communication. "Place yourself among strangers. Many people don't like being outside their comfort zones, but that is exactly what you want to do when working on observation. One of the reasons for clinging to the familiar is, aware or not, you know the nonverbal signals those who are frequently around you use. Exposing yourself to situations where you must interact with strangers, whether on television, on film, or in the real world, is similar to cultural emersion to learn a new language. You cannot fall back on what you already know to fake it but rather must actually learn something."


Here are a few more tricks you can use to increase your own awareness of nonverbal communication. First and foremost, be observant. Listen with your eyes, not just your ears. As you watch, ask yourself what you’ve learned about the emotional state of your subjects. Next, take notes of your observations. Organize those notes so they are readily available to you when you are writing.









Margaret McGaffey Fisk at Forward Motion Writer’s Community ( )

Curve of Her Claw

From the Ashes http://www.parsec

The Author's Grimoire

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