How To Spot Nonverbal Communication

Theresa Zagnoli
Theresa Zagnoli

We are less than 50% correct in judging our own image. Alarming? Yes, but equally alarming is that a good portion of that failure isn’t caused by the words that come out of our mouths, but, rather, our ability to communicate nonverbally. Nonverbal communication, of course, is the part of us that communicates through body position, posture and facial expression, for example.

There are two sides to nonverbal communication: sending and receiving.

As a leader within your organization, you must be cognizant and skillful at both. In order to truly enhance your communication success, you must learn to communicate nonverbally as well as interpret nonverbal messages from others.

Below is what I refer to as the “Big Four.” Learn to use, identify and manage these nonverbal elements of communications.


What you should do: Take up space to communicate that you are in control. Put your bag on one chair and your coat on another. Do not cross your legs or arms, keep your shoulders back and your head up.

Taking up space shows confidence, and gives the impression that this is your turf.

What to look for: The use of space is all about context; putting your jacket on one chair and bag on another to convey authority doesn’t matter as much in a job interview compared to a meeting with a subordinate or colleague, in which if you put your feet up on the desk, it may send the wrong signal.


What you should do: Force yourself to make eye contact with whomever you are talking to. Make it while you are speaking and while you are listening.

Eye contact is so important because the meaning of making it and not making it is misread constantly. Shy can be misinterpreted as aloof or uninterested. A downward gaze, while one might be simply thinking, is incorrectly thought to be a sign of deceit.

What to look for: Watch for a different gaze during different parts of the conversation. Whether the person is making eye contact is less important than what she is saying while making or avoiding a direct look.


What you should do: This category includes handbags, jewelry, wallpaper, furniture, or anything in the immediate environment that the person to whom you are talking may be, say, tugging, peeling, squeezing, and sending nonverbal messages about how they’re responding to what you’re saying.

What to look for: Big and bold or little and precise, it all depends on perception and your audience. For example, women who wear big, bold scarves, sizable and colorful necklaces, and/or large brooches are usually said to be trying to set themselves apart.

On the other hand, women who wear little, pointy, hardly visible artifacts are said to be sending a message of preciseness, shyness and/or one reared with a puritan view of what’s proper.


What you should do: A tricky subject in today’s environment. Do you touch or not? People who touch, and those who appreciate touch, are more open to ideas, said to be better-adjusted socially and, of course, beloved by most of their family and friends.

Gestures such as backslapping exist for a reason and are strong demonstrations of appreciation. Touch things around you to make them more noticeable to the observer and when appropriate provide a pat on the back, literally.

What to look for: Be wary of someone who stiffens or recoils from a hug or a lingering handshake; there is likely more to this than meets the eye. While it might be a preference to stick to the [no-touch] rules, be aware that this person is absolutely sending a message by withdrawing from an appropriate touch.

As with all communication, verbal and nonverbal, context is key. My parting advice: If the room is cold, don’t think the person sitting with his arms crossed is in a defensive position. He’s just chilly.


Theresa Zagnoli is CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the June 16, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.