The Importance of Non-Verbal Communication

February 5, 2019


Non-verbal communication (NVC) has been studied in academia since the 1950’s.  A pioneering study at UCLA indicated that up to ninety-three percent of communication effectiveness is determined by non-verbal cues (Mehrabian, 1971).  Another study determined that non-verbal messages are seen as more reliable than verbal messages (Zuckerman, DePaulo, and Rosenthal, 1981). 

Even some of the latest research on “bullying” suggests that students would be less targeted by bullies if they could master three factors identified by researchers, all of which have to do with the ability to properly identify and react appropriately to non-verbal communication (McKown, 2009).

An often overlooked aspect to our daily life is that of first impressions.  A series of experiments by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov reveal that all it takes is one-tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their facial expression.  Furthermore, longer exposures don't significantly alter this impression (although they might boost your confidence in your judgments). The Willis and Todorov research is presented in their article "First Impressions" in the July 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  Another study conducted at Carleton University in Ottawa, concludes that people form first impressions in as little as one-twentieth of a second.  Regardless of which study you agree with, the time that it takes to make a first impression is really fast. 

The results of these and other studies make understanding non-verbal communication extremely valuable.  NVC goes hand-in-hand with the importance of mastering good communication skills for effectiveness in the workplace, school, home, personal relationships, during recreation, and virtually all aspects of life.  So, the question remains: despite the great importance placed on NVC, why is it the study of NVC is totally absent from public school education and only selectively available at the post-secondary level?  Such a critical skill needs to be made available at all levels of education and training, with refresher studies as needed.

The understanding and application of non-verbal communication is useful for everyone, both professionally and personally.  With knowledge of NVC, you would be able to answer the following professional questions:

  • When you are in a meeting, can you tell who is bored or wants to leave?
  • When you are in a meeting, can you tell who may be nervous?
  • Can you tell if someone lies or is deceptive with you?
  • Can you read an interview applicant as being truly interested in the position or simply after income?
  • Can you tell if a client is displeased when negotiating a contract?
  • Can you tell if a student may be nervous about taking a test, or anxious to leave class?

Understanding NVC in your personal life would help you with the following questions:

  • Do you know what to look for if a date is going well?
  • Your friend crosses his arms while you are arguing.  What is he thinking?
  • Your mother-in-law is telling a boring story, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings.  How should you display interest?
  • Can you tell if a person you are about to hire to come into your home to clean, care for an elderly parent, or care for your children, is being deceptive?
  • Can you tell if you are being deceived when the car repairperson says you need an expensive part?

People that have first-hand knowledge of non-verbal communication skills go farther faster in organizations because they have a distinct advantage over others within and outside of their organization.  Thankfully, the skills required to know what to look for and how to interpret NVC can be taught and mastered just like any other skill set.

Mastering non-verbal communication will enhance your personal body language cues to project a calm and collected persona.  You will come across credible in meetings, and have that first impression "wow" factor.  There has never been a better time for learning and mastering non-verbal communication skills.

Want to try it? Test out your newly learned skills!

When having a service person come to your home, do the following:

  1. Greet them at the door and walk them to the meeting area.  Watch as they walk to collect baseline information about their overall body movement, arm swing, walking gait, etc. 
  2. Keep a conversation going with them while walking.  During conversation listen for tone, speed, and check to see how much eye contact is happening.
  3. Such baseline data will help you to know what is "normal" activity with that person.
  4. During discussion of the service to be rendered and amount to be paid, check to see if the same body movements, speech patterns, and eye contact are maintained. 
  5. If they are different or change, i.e., loss of eye contact, voice changes up or down, there may be some deception with this person. 
  6. Calmly thank them for their bid of service, but indicate you are collecting several bids to compare.

Jerry Balistreri, MS, M.Ed., DTE, is a professional educator, administrator, author, and trainer with more than 30 years experience training, researching, writing, and speaking on non-verbal communication. To learn more visit

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