The Difference Between Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

Have you ever heard the expression, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you’re saying”? This quote has been recycled in many different ways but the sentiment is the same, and that is, actions speak louder than words.

Most might associate this with big grand gestures (or lack thereof), but what about smaller nonverbal cues, like your facial expressions, hand gestures, or body movements that can inadvertently influence an entire conversation without you even realising it.

two women communicating in an office setting

Key Takeaways:

  • Actions speak louder than words, and nonverbal cues have a significant impact on the transmission of messages.
  • Verbal communication involves an oral exchange of information, emotions, and thoughts, but nonverbal cues carry more meaning.
  • Non-verbal communication accounts for a significant percentage (70-93%) of all communication.
  • Facial expressions are universal and can intensify or diminish emotions.
  • Hand gestures and movements add emotion and emphasis to spoken words.
  • Eye contact demonstrates respect and interest and aids in lip-reading for individuals with hearing loss.
  • Body language, including body movements and posture, reveals inner thoughts and feelings.
  • Body language can be interpreted differently, so it’s important to clarify nonverbal cues with verbal communication.
  • The key difference between verbal and nonverbal communication is that the latter is largely unconscious while the former is conscious and deliberate.
  • Nonverbal cues and signals can occur even when no words are spoken.
  • The difference between verbal and nonverbal messages can lead to misinterpretation.
  • It is important to integrate verbal and nonverbal communication for effective interaction.
  • Developing strong non-verbal communication skills enhances effective communication.
  • Integrating verbal and nonverbal cues creates cohesive and meaningful interactions.
  • Conscious choices in words, tone of voice, and body language contribute to effective communication.
  • Understanding and utilising facial expressions, eye contact, body movements, and other nonverbal cues foster meaningful connections and effective communication.

Communication is the lifeblood of human interaction, allowing us to express feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Verbal communication is usually what people are referring to when they talk about communication but a lot more is said in the nonverbal cues and signals from your body movements than the words coming out of your mouth.

Today we’re going to delve into the world of communication, the verbal and non-verbal, and how you can leverage both to foster effective communication.

Verbal communication

Verbal communication is how many of us communicate with others. It is essentially oral communication through the use of words to exchange information, emotions, and thoughts. However, it’s not just our words that are impactful in oral communication. Our tone of voice, volume and inflection while speaking can also alter the meaning behind the words. A sentence said in different ways can have different meanings.

An example of the difference in tone of voice or inflection can be seen in the following sentence, “You want to go there?” This sentence can be a generic question if said with no emphasis on any of the words. However, once you add emphasis on one of the words, such as “you want to go THERE?” the meaning of the sentence completely changes to be more of surprise or disbelief as to why someone would want to go somewhere.

The subtle shift in tone of voice can create fundamental differences in meaning and impact. These subtleties and the ambiguous nature of language can lead to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. This is where non-verbal communication comes into play.

Nonverbal communication

It’s said that most of our communication is actually non-verbal. Experts have yet to agree on an exact percentage as there haven’t been enough studies, but the general consensus is that 70 to 93% of all communication is nonverbal. Though silent, nonverbal cues can express feelings and attitudes to other people more effectively than speaking sometimes.

When we interact with others, we are constantly giving and receiving nonverbal signals. Forms of nonverbal communication include facial expressions, hand gestures, eye contact and body movements.

Facial expressions

Facial expressions can intensify or diminish an emotion that you’re feeling. Many facial expressions are seen as universal, such as raised eyebrows to express surprise or upward-curved lips to express happiness. It’s been found that most facial expressions transcend language and are perceived in the same way by different cultures. A smile means the same thing in all parts of the world, regardless of cultural differences.

Gestures

Hand gestures can add a lot of emotion and emphasis to the words you are speaking to help you express yourself. Large and sweeping hand gestures and movement create greater emphasis while smaller gestures communicate something more specific, like holding up your thumb to express a positive reaction.

Another gesture that is commonly looked at to express emotion is head movements. Nodding or shaking your head can indicate a positive or negative response depending on what part of the world you are in. In Bulgaria, shaking your head up and down is seen as a negative response in comparison to most other parts of the world.

Eye contact

How you make eye contact is an important part of non-verbal communication. Looking someone in the eye and making strong eye contact demonstrates respect and interest. Just making eye contact with someone is usually seen as a signal to initiate conversation. It’s also important to note that for those who have hearing loss, eye contact aids in lip-reading, making communication more effective.

Eye movement can also convey nonverbal messages. For example, rolling your eyes is seen as a sign of frustration or annoyance. Squinting eyes indicate stress or anger. Pay attention to the micro-expressions in someone’s eyes to truly understand how they’re feeling.

Body language

Our body language can reveal our inner thoughts and feelings to others. Body language consists of body movements and posture. How we move and carry ourselves can carry nonverbal messages to those listening.

However, the same body language can be interpreted differently by people. For example, crossing your arms can indicate defensiveness or insecurity. Fiddling with your hands can express anxiety or boredom.

Posture also plays a big role in how people perceive you. Sitting hunched over can send a message that you feel defeated, while leaning back indicates that you are feeling relaxed.

The smallest of body movements can carry so much meaning but different people can interpret them differently so it’s important to clarify any nonverbal cues with oral communication to be sure that it’s being read in the right way.

The Difference between verbal and nonverbal communication

The first difference between verbal and nonverbal communication is that when we communicate verbally, we use a single channel (our words) versus multiple channels when we communicate nonverbally.

The second difference is that verbal communication happens in a linear fashion, and there is a clear beginning and end to the sentence and the message. Nonverbal communication, however, is continuous.

Regardless of whether or not anything is being said, our nonverbal communication is always putting signals and cues out there regardless of whether or not we are speaking.

The key difference between the two is that verbal communication is often conscious, while nonverbal communication is largely unconscious. You usually think about what you will say, but you don’t usually think about your nonverbal cues and signals. They often just happen if you’re not paying attention. The discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal messages can often lead to your communication being misinterpreted; therefore, it’s important to find a way for the two different means of communication to work together.

The importance of nonverbal communication

To enhance our communication effectiveness, it is crucial to develop strong non-verbal communication skills. This includes being aware of our body language and facial expressions. Paying attention to visual cues, such as maintaining appropriate eye contact and using open and positive hand gestures can greatly enhance our ability to convey messages accurately and build positive relationships.

Next time you’re in a meeting, notice your posture and what nonverbal message it is sending out. Is it what you want to be communicating or can you adjust your body movements to align better to the words that you are saying?

Conscious communication through verbal and nonverbal cues

To achieve truly effective communication, it is essential to integrate both verbal and nonverbal cues seamlessly. By aligning our words with our nonverbal signals, we can create a cohesive and meaningful interaction with those around us. This requires conscious choices in our use of words, tone of voice, and body movements.

Developing emotional intelligence and practising active listening can also help us become better communicators, ensuring that our verbal and non-verbal messages are in harmony.

Verbal and non-verbal communication are distinct means of transmitting messages, each with its strengths and limitations. While your choice of words provides precise information, nonverbal signals add depth, emotion, and context to your communication. Understanding the power of facial expressions, eye contact, body movements, and other nonverbal cues is crucial for establishing meaningful connections and fostering effective communication.

By recognising the importance of both forms of communication and striving to master them, we can unlock the full potential of human interaction.