As a small business leader, so much of your success hinges on excellent communication and the ability to understand others. Whether meeting with potential investors, employees or customers, having a grasp on how to best connect is integral to meeting goals.

While human beings do tend to talk a lot, much of our communication actually comes through nonverbal cues that give others an idea about who we are and what we feel. Recognizing the importance of nonverbal communication in the workplace can help you consider whom you hire, how you hire, with whom you connect, whom you let go, which customers you attract and more.

Nonverbal Cues: Definition

Nonverbal cues include any and all information you communicate to others by using your appearance, tone, body language, eyes, sounds and more. When an employee shows up in a suit versus ripped jeans and a band T-shirt, she communicates something very important to you about her identity, her values and her level of professionalism. She is using her appearance to communicate with you just like she might use open body language, eye contact and note taking to convey interest in the job.

All of these things and more nonverbal communication types contribute to the work culture of your small business and how you relate with colleagues, employees and customers.

Importance of Nonverbal Communication

Imagine sitting in a team meeting where one of your employees has presented his idea for an upcoming social media marketing campaign. In response, another employee shouts, "I love your idea!" The meaning of her words can have completely different meaning based on her body language. If she has happy, open eyes and an excited tone of voice, this affirms her interest. On the other hand, if she furrows her brows and yells in a low voice, her statement screams of sarcasm and unprofessionalism.

The importance of nonverbal communication is crystal clear when we recognize that everything about our appearance and body language must line up with our intentions in order for the other person to get the right message. If you need to have a difficult conversation about performance with an employee, having compassionate eyes and a soft tone of voice can make all the difference in terms of warding off defensiveness and inspiring cooperation.

Likewise, when you walk into an investor meeting with confidence and a strong handshake, they will probably see you as a safer investment than if you seem timid and unsure.

Nonverbal Cues: Examples

Your employees probably often give you nonverbal cues, including things like:

  • Eye contact or wandering eyes
  • Confident or unsure posture
  • Checking their watch or phone
  • Hand gestures 
  • Taking notes
  • Leaning toward or away from you
  • Crossing or uncrossing arms and legs 
  • Pausing for silence or interrupting you
  • Talking fast or slow 
  • Sighing or making other noises 

When one of your employees holds prolonged eye contact with you, sits up straight, puts her phone away and leans forward, she is communicating interest and professionalism. As time begins to grow short toward the end of your meeting, she might begin to repeatedly glance at her watch, nod, look out the window or even pull her phone back out.

Learn to look for these nonverbal cues in your employees and become aware of them in yourself to maximize your ability to understand others, to be understood clearly and to offer respect for the boundaries of others.

Appearance and Communication

Different life situations and work settings have different expectations regarding appearance, including clothing style, hairstyle, body art and more. When you dress in accordance with the proper setting, you are giving nonverbal cues about respect. While some small business leaders might assume that it's always professional to dress in a suit or business-causal attire, this is not always the case. For instance, someone who owns a tattoo parlor or auto body shop might be more professional with body art on display or wearing a mechanic's uniform.

In order to best connect with others, alter your appearance and dress to suit the situation. When you are not sure about what to wear or how to look, take a glance at the business's website or ask others who have been there before. Also, pay attention to employees or potential employees who have a firm grasp on what respectful appearances are or aren't for your specific business setting. Because first impressions are so vital in the business world, appearance could be considered one of the most important of all the nonverbal communication types.

Eye Contact During Communication

In the United States, most business professionals believe that holding eye contact is a nonverbal cue signaling confidence, and they tend to see disconnected eye contact as insecurity or disinterest.

However, holding eye contact is actually highly cultural, as it is considered rude to maintain eye contact in certain cultures or areas of the world, like in Japan, China, Cambodia and South Korea. For this reason, when considering nonverbal communication types, it is vital to consider culture to best understand colleagues, employees or other business professionals.

Receptivity to Communication

Even the most incredible employees sometimes have rough days or feel overwhelmed by an encroaching deadline. If you try to start a conversation with them when they are not up to it, you might notice nonverbal cues like turning their back to you to continue working or even walking off to make copies.

When you notice that someone seems uninterested or unable to communicate based on the nonverbal cues he is giving you, consider scheduling a time to connect with him when he'll be more up for it.

Closed Body Language

You probably occasionally sense that an employee or customer is unhappy with you or not ready to communicate by her body language. If she is sitting with her arms and legs crossed while looking and leaning away from you, it's not hard to get the message.

You might encourage her to open up by keeping an open body posture, communicating with an empathetic tone of voice, emphasizing understanding, leaning toward her and attempting to make eye contact with kind eyes. When that is not effective, sometimes it is best to find another time or way to communicate that works for you both.

Voice Pitch, Speed and Volume

People tend to talk faster, louder and in a higher pitch when they are nervous but more slowly and methodically when they are calm and confident. You can pay attention to how your employees and customers use their voices when you communicate to know if they feel at ease or not.

In addition, if you are preparing to speak in front of the board and find yourself feeling nervous, you can choose to intentionally pay attention to the pitch, speed and volume of your own voice. This gives you the opportunity to choose a lower tone and slower speed to communicate confidence even though you feel nervous.

Nonverbal Sounds and Communication

Not all vocal sounds made in the workplace are words. You and your team likely use a variety of nonverbal vocal cues to communicate frustration, understanding, impatience, empathy and more. For instance, a heavy sigh can help provide relief when someone is stressed or anxious about a new assignment. Someone might growl in frustration when the copy machine stops working in the middle of printing a 120-page document.

Nonverbal sounds are not always associated with depleting emotions in the workplace. Chuckles and giggles might accompany delight at having done better at an assignment than expected or when connecting with a colleague over a joke. An enthusiastic "woohoo!" could signal excitement in cheering on a colleague toward a goal, while a happy melodic sigh could signal relief and relaxation after a job well done.

Facial Expressions and Communication

Our faces communicate a lot about how we are feeling and what emotions we are experiencing in a wide variety of situations. Some people tend to have more expressive faces than others, but our faces all communicate emotion to one degree or another. Go to a mirror and notice what happens to your eyebrows, nose and mouth as you make faces to go with the following emotions:

  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Confused
  • Shocked
  • Angry
  • Relieved

Then, notice differences in your employees' faces as they experience a range of emotions throughout the workday. Understanding how you and others show emotion can help you learn greater emotional intelligence so you can connect with others in the workplace more easily and authentically.

Posture and Communication

Human beings are not robots who sit with straight backs at attention in all circumstances. Notice how you sit when you're relaxing on the couch versus leading a board meeting at work. Soft and easy postures tend to signal relaxation, while slouching screams of disinterest or insecurity, and standing with shoulders back communicates confidence.

You can use your posture to communicate your emotions and also notice body language in your employees to gauge energy level and emotion.

Gestures and Communication

If you've ever taken a business trip to another country where you do not speak the native language, you've probably experienced the power of gestures in communication. If you ask where the bathroom is using Google Translate, the other person might point or gesture for you to follow him.

When you are welcoming clients into your office, you might use an arm gesture to wave them in, or if an employee asks you a question to which you don't know the answer, you could shrug and put your hands up. Gestures help us communicate and show emotion in the workplace, even when we never utter a word.

Micro-Messages and Communication

Micro-messages are very brief communications that take place over a fraction of a second, and most of us send 40 to 50 of them in any given minute without even realizing it. Mirco-messages are broken into two subtypes:

  1. Micro-inequities devalue the other person and the communication.
  2. Micro-affirmations affirm the other person and the communication.

It doesn't feel good to be on the receiving end of micro-inequities, which often communicate unconscious bias and can include things like:

  • Using sarcasm
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Hovering over someone 
  • Grimacing 
  • Glancing at your watch
  • Typing a message while someone is talking
  • Checking your phone during a conversation

In contrast, micro-affirmations can be an antidote to micro-inequities, affirming the value of the other person and your communication together. Consider incorporating some of the following habits into your nonverbal communication repertoire and encourage your team to do the same:

  • Intentionally use kind facial expressions.
  • Keep an open body language.
  • Use welcoming gestures.
  • Recognize and affirm the presence and contributions of others.
  • Make eye contact when culturally appropriate.
  • Communicate with people by name.
  • Put your phone away.
  • Avoid multitasking while talking with others.