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Ways to Improve Nonverbal Communication Skills

By Arlin Cuncic ; Updated June 13, 2017

Nonverbal communication skills include the ability to read the body language of others as well as the ability to exhibit nonverbal behavior that matches your speech. When your words don't match your body language, others may question your trustworthiness. When you notice inconsistencies in the words and actions of others, you might be confused. Improving nonverbal communication skills requires self-awareness and keen powers of observation.

Manage Stress

When you feel stressed, your ability to read the body language of others is diminished, according to Stress can also make it hard to communicate, as you might send confusing signals or fall into unhelpful patterns of behavior. For example, if you are worried about a work project when a colleague stops to talk, you might say all of the right things, such as "How was your weekend?" or "What have you got planned for lunch today?" At the same time, you might be looking through your briefcase, anxiously tapping your fingers and generally looking tense -- not at all aligned with the friendly behavior your colleague would expect. Become aware of your stress and find ways to release it -- such as through exercise or meditation -- so that it doesn't affect your communication with others.

Improve Emotional Awareness

Along with stress, emotional awareness is a key element in improving your nonverbal communication skills. Watch other people and try to predict how they are feeling based on their body language. Pay attention to the nonverbal signals that you are sending when you speak. Show others that you notice and care how they are feeling. Emotional awareness is the building block upon which nonverbal decoding skills are built -- so don't skip this step. For example, watch for signs of openness such as eye contact, leaning in, relaxed body posture and palms facing up. Show others you are friendly by engaging in these open behaviors yourself.

Practice Observing

The ability to decode nonverbal communication takes practice. It is not something that you can learn in a day. In a "Psychology Today" article on body language, Claremont McKenna College psychology professor Ronald E. Riggio discussed how over the course of hundreds of hours of viewing videotapes of nonverbal behavior his ability to decode body language vastly improved. You can practice by watching others. Look at eye contact, body posture and facial expressions. Listen for changes in tone of voice or rate of speech. For example, a person whose arms are crossed and who is turned away from you and not making eye contact may be hiding something or not interested in talking.

Receive Feedback

Often people have trouble learning to read and project appropriate body language because they haven't received feedback about how they are doing, says Riggio. Enlist the help of a friend, and ask how you come across during conversation. You might be surprised to learn that others find some aspect of your behavior off-putting, but welcome the opportunity to work on that issue. For example, if you tend to stand too close or speak too loudly, watch how others stand when they speak and note the volume they use. Use the feedback you receive to modify your behavior and improve the connection between what you say and how you act -- as well as the impression that you make on other people.

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