Have you ever felt that people thought less of you because of something you said? Ever feel that a colleague might have taken it the wrong way when you opined that their last bit of work looked like it was created by a chimpanzee? Has your boss ever criticised your writing or what you say around the office? Was it your boss you were talking to when you made the chimp remark?

Well, do I have news for you! You can compensate for your verbal shortcomings by improving your non-verbal communication.

One supposed expert claims that the words we use have a seven per cent impact on our communication. Voice tone has a 38 per cent impact. But non-verbal body language amounts to a 55 per cent impact on your message, which is why I always enunciate clearly, smile and sit up straight while writing this column.

Body talk

In our modern, word-filled world, we tend to be oblivious to non-verbal communication, but our subconscious minds are keenly attuned to it − especially when you consider people were around for hundreds of thousands of years before primitive letters crawled out of the primordial alphabetic ooze to create one-syllable organisms that, over the course of eons, evolved into words. Our distant ancestors had to use gestures, posture, and cave drawings and what we would now call ‘clubs’ to communicate. Our ability to understand non-verbal communication became hard-wired into our genes and remains there today, along with the fundamental human need to swing baseball bats.

The best things about non-verbal communication is it can be used to discredit verbal communication, or to compensate for ignorance. For example, if someone uses a word you don’t understand; such as ‘I was able to assuage her feelings’. Instead of admitting that you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘feelings’, you can conceal your ignorance behind your ability to read non-verbal communication by saying: ‘That guy crosses his ankles like a liar’. Most of us aren’t consciously attuned to what we are communicating non-verbally except when gesturing to a person on the highway who did something really boneheaded. This in no way diminishes the power of your non-verbal communication, so it is simply a matter of being aware of it and using it to communicate clearly.

Interpretations

Here are some non-verbal messages and what they mean. Arms crossed: the classic ‘closed’ pose means you are defiant, perhaps even angry and not ‘open’ to new ideas, such as being handcuffed.

Leaning toward someone: this shows that you’re interested in what is being said. However, don’t lean into someone’s face as that signals confrontation. Instead, sit at an angle. Forty-five degrees is ideal so long as the other person doesn’t see you using a protractor whilst adjusting yourself.

Hands fidgeting: let’s say your boss is having an uncomfortable conversation with you. If your fingers are interlocked, it reveals your inner tension and that you sense something is up. Your instincts will be borne out when you are escorted to HR and forcibly ejected from the building.

Sitting or standing at the same eye-level as the person you’re talking to: even animals understand this. When people tower over a dog, a dominant dog may repel such a challenge to his rank with a snarl, while a submissive dog may squat and urinate. So don’t stand while the person you’re speaking to is sitting unless you know the person is house-trained or is at least positioned above newspapers.

Opening lips: parted, relaxed, unchapped lips mean you’re happy. Pursed lips indicate concern. And fat lips? That means someone didn’t appreciate your comment about the chimp.