The nonverbal signals we send in conversation, from body movements to facial expressions, can be more powerful than the words we say. Unfortunately, nonverbal communication skills aren’t taught in school, but are crucial to success in professional and social settings. Your child may slouch in his seat, which may indicate he is bored or unimpressed, for instance, or he may have a tendency to look down at his shoes when he gives a presentation in front of the class, which suggests a lack of confidence. Since kids aren’t formally trained in these nonverbal nuances, some may never learn the appropriate ways to interact with others.
“Nonverbal communication can contradict or undermine verbal communication,” writes Mariam MacGregor, author of Everyday Leadership: Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success and Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens: Promoting Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success and creator of the Web site Youthleadership.com. If your child has a habit of twirling her hair or her pencil, these movements may signal to her peers or teacher that she is preoccupied or not attentive, when this may not be the case.
Body language and nonverbal communication comes naturally to children, but as they get older, verbal communication begins to dominates more and more. This is when older children and adults can lose some of the ability to understand others on such an instinctive level. Plus, the ability to communicate nonverbally varies from person to person, and can be largely innate. (Autistic children, for example, may have extreme difficulty in understanding communication not spelled out in words.)
Nonverbal communication requires self-awareness and the ability to observe others, and a variety of faux-pas – from sighing loudly during a lecture to talking with your back turned to someone – may lead to miscommunication, awkwardness, and – ultimately – isolation. Furthermore, nonverbal communication is sometimes connected to culture and gender, and the same ‘signal’ can carry different meanings when coming from different people, according to MacGregor. Bottom line? If your child is uncertain of what someone is communicating, urge her to ask questions to clarify what is being said, whether she is in the classroom or out on the playground.
Here are some of MacGregor's tips to help you introduce these skills on your own:
- Be aware of body language: Laying back in your seat suggests boredom, while leaning forward signals approachability and openness.
- Make natural, appropriate gestures: Clenched fists suggest anger, while fidgety hands suggest nervousness. But if you fail to gesture at all while speaking, you may seem “stiff” and uninterested. If you’re on the receiving end of a conversation, nodding your head communicates positive reinforcement and shows that you are listening.
- Make eye contact: Avoiding eye contact implies low self-confidence and looking down suggests embarrassment. Direct and frequent eye contact with another person – or members of an entire classroom – exhibits confidence and interest.
- Animate your face: Ambiguous facial expressions – neither a smile nor a frown – can distort or hide the meaning of your message. Smiling, in general, shows you are friendly, receptive, and willing.
- Vary your voice: Raising the volume of your voice can indicate enthusiasm, but possibly anger if you’re not careful. Mumbling is a sign of low self-confidence, talking in monotone implies apathy, and speaking slowly on purpose may imply that you think the other person doesn't understand you, which comes off as rude. If your child is preparing for a presentation, for instance, she should practice varying voice elements in front of the mirror (or record herself and play it back).
- Listen actively and ask probing questions: In conversation, repeat or paraphrase what is said to you to confirm what someone is trying to say.
- Play games: Games like charades and role-playing activities strengthen nonverbal communication skills. Urge your child to observe her peers' body movements and facial expressions.
- Encourage laughter: Humor is an effective, natural way to communicate with others. During a presentation, interview, speech, or conversation, the ability to connect with peers with light, unforced humor should be encouraged.
Of course, there’s no predetermined way to teach nonverbal communication skills. But be your child’s role model, and also encourage him to observe how others communicate. From there, he’ll begin to learn through natural, day-to-day interaction.