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Non-verbal Communication

Non-verbal Science

Non-verbal Terms

Non-verbal Examples

First Impressions
Facial Expressions
Eye Contact
Sound Effects
Direct Contact

Consent Issues
Personal Qualities
Johari Window


Non-verbal Communication

In a very general sense, non-verbal communication simply includes all communication which is not achieved purely through the use of words or other symbols which perform the same task as words. However, as discussed below under Non-verbal Terms, that distinction is not always clear cut.

Regardless of the occasional demarcation disputes, non-verbal communication occurs within the same basic framework (i.e. output, transmission and input, to condense thousands of pages into three words) as does communication which is dependent on discrete symbols such as words. As I mentioned earlier, that process is very briefly discussed in Appendix 1. Incidentally, I am still avoiding the term "verbal communication", because it is sometimes applied to the spoken word alone, and sometimes to both the spoken word and the written word.

Now, although we might assume that words provide most of the information we exchange, careful observation of people who are communicating reveals a veritable flood of non-verbal information. This may be exchanged at the same time as the verbal information. Alternatively, it may be the whole of the information in cases where no verbal component is present.

I am very tempted to revisit my earlier brief but important remarks about the non-transferable nature of meaning, because this chapter is also about our constant attempts to transfer meaning. However, you can easily find those brief remarks in the first chapter (and many references to them elsewhere in the book) so I will content myself with a reminder that sender and receiver have different sense organs and different cognitive function, and that many other factors also influence meaning.

Non-verbal Science

There have not been very many studies of non-verbal communication, and hardly any have been quantitative. However, a study by Albert Mehrabian[1] in 1971 provided some interesting information about the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages in determining the receiver's impression of the sender's emotions. Specifically, each receiver was asked to assess whether the sender was expressing liking, neutrality or disliking.

Mehrabian found that, on average, words contributed 7% of the total influence on this assessment, while tone of voice and visual clues contributed 38% and 55% respectively. These three aspects of communication are sometimes referred to as "verbal, vocal and visual" (or "the three Vs"). However, the three Vs do not cover all the input/output methods previously discussed. The vocal component provides a large part of the auditory information but not necessarily all of it. Similarly, the visual component provides a large part of the non-auditory body language – but again, not necessarily all of it.

When a verbal message was incongruent with a non-verbal message in Mehrabian's study, the non-verbal message determined the outcome. Unfortunately, though, this study is often cited in support of claims about the superior importance of non-verbal communication in general, a subject which it did not address. It only addressed the receiver's assessment of the degree of liking or disliking expressed by the sender.

However, it does seem reasonable to expect that non-verbal communication might be important in any situation involving emotions or attitudes. This certainly seems to be the impression of many authors who write about communication. However, it is important to remember that impressions derived from experience are not always confirmed by experiment.

It is also worth remembering that the considerable importance ascribed to non-verbal communication, when communicating about emotions or attitudes, is balanced by the similarly considerable importance of words, when communicating about facts, logic, concepts, philosophy and the like.

Non-verbal Terms

It is not always immediately obvious whether an instance of communication should be considered verbal or non-verbal. Some gestures have agreed meanings which are at least as precise as those of some words. Perhaps, like writing and signing, specific gestures should be considered as verbal communication via the visual input. By the same token, a word which is screamed loudly and harshly could be thought of as non-verbal communication via the auditory input – especially if its meaning did not fit the context.

Another way of looking at this issue is to consider whether the meaning is explicit (precisely defined) or implicit (imprecisely evoked). Words are usually explicit, and gestures are usually implicit. However, in the above examples, the gestures were examples of largely explicit communication, and the screamed word was an example of largely implicit communication.

Another example of communication which has a considerable implicit element, despite being based on words, is the symbolic communication mentioned in the previous article under Shades of Meaning. Here, the words and their order are chosen in such a way that a meaning beyond the strictly literal interpretation of the words is possible. However, that meaning is not explicitly stated.

Despite these examples, most of the communication performed with words is explicit, while most of the communication performed without words is implicit. Probably for this reason, non-verbal communication is often used to express sentiments which would not be acceptable if communicated explicitly. A frown, for example, can convey disapproval or disagreement without (usually) causing overt hostility.

A more complex classification of non-verbal behaviour was suggested by Ekman and Friesen.[2] Five types were described, and were referred to as translatable, illustrative, affect-display, regulatoráand adapter. Translatable (also called "emblem") non-verbal behaviour consists of specific actions with known meanings, such as some gestures. Illustrative behaviours are those which effectively demonstrate something, perhaps by drawing a picture in the air, or showing the movement required to perform a task which is under discussion.

Affect-display behaviour allows others to see the visible effects of emotions, and thus to deduce the nature of those emotions. Regulator actions are those which are designed consciously to control the behaviour of one or more other people present, such as holding up a hand to stop someone talking.

Finally, adapter behaviour consists of actions performed to improve or maintain the comfort or security of the person exhibiting the behaviour. This could be something as simple as changing position in a chair, or scratching an itch. (In most cases, this behaviour is not intended as a form of communication at all. However, everything which can be noticed by another person may communicate something – whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not.)

Another common non-verbal behaviour, which is not specifically included in the above list, is mirroring. This means copying the behaviour of another person, such as crossing or uncrossing the arms, or leaning back or forward, during a conversation. It is often done unconsciously, and it may sometimes reflect agreement or approval. It can also be done consciously, perhaps in an attempt to put the other person at their ease. However, deliberate mirroring behaviour can easily appear artificial, and thus be counterproductive.

The previous paragraphs are a reminder of the mechanism of communication, which is action. In the case of words, the main actions are speaking, writing and typing. In the case of non-verbal communication, actions performed by almost any part of the body can create the "vocabulary". For this reason, non-verbal communication is also called body language. (Some non-verbal communication is also created indirectly, for example, by showing a film, choosing particular clothes or creating and maintaining a comfortable environment.)

Clearly, it will not be possible to list all the actions in the non-verbal repertoire. However, I will mention a few examples under the next heading. The stimuli to which a person may respond are many and various, and some can be almost infinitesimally small. Any of the five senses may be involved as inputs, and most parts of the body can create the output signals. Many of the ways in which we respond to these signals may be learned, but others are almost certainly instinctive.

Non-verbal Examples

Increasing your understanding of non-verbal communication is the first step in improving your own use and comprehension of this vital aspect of interpersonal interaction. Under the present heading, I will discuss various aspects of non-verbal communication between two people. I may sometimes refer to one of the two as a client or a patient, if it suits the context. However, much of the content could apply to any two people, neither of whom need be in a professional role. Some of it could also be extrapolated to small or large groups of people.

First Impressions

Appearance and personal hygiene are two very important sources of non-verbal messages, especially at the time of the initial contact. Most people find it easier to relate to someone who is clean, reasonably well groomed, and dressed in a way which does not elicit strong reactions. Minor health problems such as bad breath or unpleasant body odours can have a disproportionately large effect on a patient or client.

An adverse first impression can be a considerable barrier to the development of a satisfactory rapport.[3] The damage done in the first few seconds may take hours to undo, and may occasionally mar a relationship forever. The relevant factors are not limited to those mentioned. Almost everything about a person can contribute to the all-important first impression. This includes the so-called "object communication" created by things like clothes, jewellery and hairstyle.


The distance between you and another person may affect the reception of directly transmitted information by the receiver's inputs. For example, if you are too far apart, you may not be able to hear each other's speech clearly. The other inputs can also be affected by distance, in similar ways.

Your position relative to a client also sends quite a few messages of its own. Talking to a patient who is in bed, from the corridor, may be interpreted to mean that normal proximity is not desirable. Any number of possible reasons could be imagined for this, such as that the communication is considered unimportant, the patient is thought to be infectious, or the prognosis is so terrible that you cannot bear to face them. Any unusually distant position could have a similar effect.

While excessive distance usually has an adverse influence, close proximity may have positive or negative effects. It might suggest friendliness, preparation for a confidential discussion or the natural behaviour of a warm and caring personality. On the other hand, it might seem threatening, or even downright offensive, depending on the situation and the person involved.


Distance is not the only aspect of the spatial relationship between people. For example, standing above a person who is sitting or lying down may interfere with recognition of facial and ocular expressions and gestures, and may also make the person feel at a disadvantage in various ways. Sitting in a low chair beside someone in a high bed creates a more or less opposite vertical displacement, with its own set of drawbacks.

Even when two people are at the same vertical level, their orientation can vary greatly. The main possibilities are face to face, side to side, back to back and all the angles in between. In most situations, having at least an oblique view of the other person's face is highly desirable. Approximately face to face orientation has advantages, as all aspects of both verbal and non-verbal communication are then easier to exchange.

However, face to face orientation can seem confrontational, especially if the distance between the two people is small, so an oblique angle may be preferred. When a desk is present, one solution is for the client to sit beside one end of the desk, instead of facing the interviewer across the whole desktop. The two then view each other across a corner of the desk.

Some interviewers prefer to leave the desk altogether and sit side by side with the client, turning their chairs in obliquely. This is less formal, but it makes it more difficult to manage multiple documents, take notes or use a computer. Therefore, in cases where a fair amount of data entry or retrieval is necessary, this would not usually be the ideal orientation.


The posture of the body is in some ways analogous to the expression of the face, and provides communicative output in a similar way. Sometimes, an unusual posture may be due to physical or mental illness, but usually it can be controlled consciously, with consequent improvement in communication.

Consider the following possible postures. Standing rigid and immobile; crouching, poised as if ready to escape; slumped in a chair waiting for backache to strike; squatting uncomfortably on the floor and wobbling precariously; or sitting comfortably in a position which allows both relaxation and balance.

Of those listed, only the last makes much sense as a posture for good communication. There are many other possibilities, of course – some suitable for good communication and some not. The important thing about posture is that it should provide a stable and comfortable base from which to communicate.


I will consider large-scale movements, and the body positions they create, under this heading. I will look at the movements called gestures under the next heading, and facial movements after that. They are all movements, of course. However, I think it will be more convenient to discuss them separately.

Visual communicators probably notice movements more than other communicators do. However, tactile communicators may not be far behind, especially in cases where the movement suggests the possibility of contact, or perhaps evokes some aspect of bodily comfort. Auditory and verbal communicators are likely to pay least attention to movements (unless they have good visual or tactile communication skills as well).

Moving closer might suggest interest, concern, affection, aggression, deafness or many other things, depending partly on the context and partly on the receiver. Moving away might suggest a lack of interest in the conversation, an uncaring attitude, fear, dislike, shock, disapproval, considerately allowing the other person more space – or various other things.

Crossed arms might convey a superior attitude, a closed mind, disapproval, defensiveness, or perhaps just a comfortable position. Immobility might convey a lack of interest, falling asleep, or perhaps very close attention to the other person.

Touching one's own face during a conversation is often taken to mean that one is either lying or withholding information. However, it could just as easily be an attempt to hide part of the face because of shyness. For that matter, it could be due to an itch, an attempt to stifle a sneeze (or a yawn) or perhaps just a self conscious check on a previously noticed blemish.

Another action – actually a deferring of action – which is sometimes taken as a sign of a dishonest answer is a pause before answering. I suppose this could just as well be classified as a Sound Effect, because it affects the rhythm of the auditory component of communication.

Anyway, the idea is that it takes time to formulate a good lie, whereas the truth is immediately available. The problem with this theory is that it can also take time to review the question and consider all the facts relevant to a good answer. Consequently, honest people might also pause before answering – and indeed, in my experience, they often do.

Some movements, and the consequent changes of position, cannot be avoided without sitting like a statue (which would send its own message). They therefore form an unavoidable non-verbal background to face to face communication. Consequently, it is important to pay attention to them.

Sometimes, paying attention to your own body language will allow you to catch inappropriate movements of your own before they even occur. For example, if a client shares something with you, which you find distressing or disgusting, you may notice some warning signs before you actually react.

You may feel your body preparing to recoil as if from a snake, or your face beginning to look disgusted. If so, you have a small window of opportunity in which to nip those disasters in the bud. Even if you only notice your mistake after it happens, you can at least try to ameliorate the damage – and also learn from the mistake, reducing the chance of a repeat performance.


Gestures are, as mentioned above, a subset of movements, and a very important one at that. As also mentioned earlier, there are two main groups of gestures – the explicit ones, with specific meanings, and the rest, with relatively vague meanings. I have included both types under this heading.

It is important to remember that even the first group can never be trusted completely, as regards meaning, because the meanings of gestures are learned in a haphazard way and are not usually discussed very much. Dictionaries of gestures do exist, but they are rarely consulted. Consequently, even explicit gestures may be interpreted by the person receiving them in a way rather different to that expected by the sender.

This is much more likely if the two people involved are from different cultures. In that case, a specific gesture, such as nodding or shaking the head, may even have the opposite meaning to that intended! Alternatively, a gesture can be explicit in one culture and implicit in another. Therefore, an intended meaning might not be received; or a very specific, but unintended, meaning might, unfortunately, be assumed.

In general, it is therefore wise to use gestures with extra care whenever they will have to arrive across a cultural border. This is not entirely restricted to people from different countries or with a different primary language. It can also apply to different age groups, or different regions within the same country.

If you pay close attention to the other person's body language while you communicate, you may notice when a gesture misfires. A simple explanation may then resolve the issue. Otherwise, it could interfere, to a varying and unknown degree, with the success of the interview or other interaction; and its repercussions might affect future interactions as well.

For various reasons, especially visibility and dexterity, small movements capable of creating messages mostly involve the hands or face. Like large-scale movements, they cannot easily be avoided, and their avoidance would create its own, rather strange, message in any case. As usual, the best approach is to be as aware as possible of your own output and the client's reactions; as well as the client's output, and your reactions.

The hands are very richly supplied with muscles and nerves, and have a disproportionately large amount of brain devoted to their service. It is therefore not very surprising that they can talk so well! As for the face, it can not only talk, it can also sing and dance, so I have given it a heading of its own, below.

If your hands are moving in a way that complements the rest of your communication, perhaps by sketching shapes in the air or imitating the subject of your words, then they are probably helping. However, if they are flapping around aimlessly, wringing, tapping on the table or cracking their knuckles, they may easily be doing more harm than good.

I will not try to list the many specific gestures which can be made with the hands, but I will mention a few examples which are common in Australia. Holding one hand horizontally, palm down and pointing forward, and rocking it slightly from side to side, suggests "approximately" or "so-so". Hooking the upward-facing index finger repeatedly towards oneself (usually called beckoning) means "come here". (In quite a few cultures, incidentally, all four fingers are used to beckon – and in some cultures, the whole hand is used.)

Rubbing the thumb against the first two fingers means "money" in many cultures. Writing in the air with thumb and forefinger opposed is understood by waiters in most countries to mean "bring the bill". There are countless other gestures, many of which are described in Wikipedia.[4]

Facial Expressions

Movements of the face could be thought of as analogous to gestures, or perhaps as a subset of gestures. Either way, they are of immense importance in communication. Some, such as a smile, a frown or a raised eyebrow, include a considerable proportion of explicit meaning, while others are mainly or wholly implicit. I will not attempt to discuss the enormous number of possible facial expressions, but I will make some general comments about a very few of them. I will include eye movements, but not eye contact, under this heading.

Importantly, even when an expression has an explicit meaning, that meaning is not usually the whole story. Instead, the explicit meaning acts rather like a framework, within which the overall meaning can be varied quite a lot. To some extent, this applies to all explicit non-verbal communication (and, to a lesser extent, to words as well) but I think it is more noticeable with explicit facial expressions than in most other cases.

Lack of movement is again significant – a poker face may not say much about the cards held, but it still transmits a message. Various other things which do not involve any movement can also contribute messages. Pallor, blushing, perspiration and tears are examples of facial characteristics which contribute to communication without the need for movement.

With practice, you can learn to feel most of what your face is doing, but not everything. Very tiny face or eye movements can convey quite significant messages, and yet remain unknown to the sender. Changes in pupil diameter, which may be interpreted consciously or unconsciously as having various meanings, are also not noticed by the sender.

The pupils tend to constrict in response to disapproval, anger or a reduction in cognitive effort; and to dilate in response to emotional warmth, affection or sustained cognitive effort. However, they also change diameter in response to ambient light intensity, constricting when the light is bright and dilating when it is dim or dark. A person who sees the size of another's pupils might conceivably compensate unconsciously for the light, but would not be likely to compensate for the artificial modifiers mentioned below.

Many eyedrops, and quite a few legal and illegal systemic drugs, can alter the diameter of the pupils, or inhibit their responsiveness to other stimuli, or both. Adrenaline, released as part of the "fight or flight" response[5] to anxiety or fear, enlarges the pupils. The diameter of the pupil under standard conditions, and the amount by which it changes in response to various stimuli, also varies considerably from person to person.

In view of the many confounding factors just mentioned, it might easily be thought that pupil diameter could not possibly play any significant part in non-verbal communication. However, there may well be an instinctive element in the response to this signal, so it should not be discounted entirely.

The eyelids also have a role in non-verbal communication. As well as its effect on the pupils, disapproval or anger can cause the eyelids to move closer together, whether or not a frown is present. They may also move closer together when smiling, of course, or as a result of bright, windy or dusty conditions.

The eyelids often move further apart in response to surprise or fear, even though these are not the opposites of disapproval and anger. The upper eyelids are also elevated automatically if the eyebrows are raised, which may occur with surprise, or may be used as an explicit gesture to indicate the idea of surprise.

Another thing that the eyelids do is blink. Many factors affect the blink rate, but an unusually fast rate is bound to be noticed, and might be interpreted as anxiety. A slow blink rate is not so noticeable as a fast one, but may also be noticed. Unlike pupil diameter, eyelid movements can be controlled consciously to some extent – but only if you pay attention to them.

Movements of the eyeball itself, in response to the information processing consistent with different communication styles, have been discussed previously. These eye movements can probably also be influenced consciously to some extent, but I think it is unlikely that anyone could maintain good control over them all the time. Apart from any information they yield about a preferred communication style, they might conceivably also contribute to unconscious non-verbal communication.

Eye Contact

I suppose eye contact might be considered as a gesture, or perhaps a particular example of eye movement, or just a general aspect of facial expression. However it is classified, I have given it its own heading, because it has significant effects on communication and therefore deserves careful attention.

Eye contact has different meanings for different people. It is sometimes used to signify the gravity of a verbal statement. It can sometimes imply that more has been meant, or understood, than can easily be expressed verbally. It can provide a sense of emotional connection, with a variable degree of intimacy. It can also carry the suggestion (not necessarily correct) that no part of the truth is being withheld from the receiver.

However, if you make prolonged eye contact, some people might feel that you are trying to stare them down, which is an aggressive behaviour in most contexts. Others might feel that you are looking deep inside them, to a degree which could be perceived as disturbing, intrusive or just plain impertinent.

Too little eye contact, on the other hand, might give the impression that you have something to hide, or perhaps that you dislike the other person and want to avoid closer interaction. Alternatively, the other person might assume that you consider them irrelevant and therefore can't be bothered taking much notice of them. Many other interpretations are possible, which makes it all rather confusing.

Adding to the potential confusion is the fairly common suspicion that there may be more to eye-to-eye messaging than has yet been scientifically demonstrated. Quite a strong sense of communication is felt by many people during eye contact. It is sometimes reported as a result of quite fleeting eye contact. Usually, the communication involved is sensed as implicit, but occasionally there may be an impression of explicit meaning.

I suppose this could simply be because each person has a good view of whatever the other's pupils, eyeballs and eyelids are doing, and therefore notices the messages exchanged in those ways with increased clarity. However, many people feel that there is more to it than that, even though no direct eye-to-eye communication input/output method has been demonstrated by means of controlled experimentation at the time of writing.

Whatever the reason for the various feelings people have about the eyes, it makes sense to adjust the amount of eye contact offered in response to all the clues you have to the client's comfort or distress. This should help you to avoid erring too much in either direction. I think a reasonable starting point is to make fairly frequent, but brief, eye contact, and to avoid prolonged eye contact until a fairly good rapport is established.

Sound Effects

The sound of the voice (whether or not it is also making words) is a very important part of non-verbal communication. The loudness, pitch, rhythm and timbre[6] of the voice all carry their own messages, as do changes in any or all of them. So does the rate at which the words are delivered, though this might be considered an aspect of rhythm. Complex combinations of these five qualities can convey the attitude of the speaker, such as a superior, timid, accepting or authoritarian attitude, as well as many other fine shades of meaning.

Stress on particular words, or pauses in the flow of speech, also convey meaning. Timing, too, is not only vital for comedians – it is an important aspect of all communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. Different accents, whether regional or foreign, also influence listener responses – and sometimes comprehension as well. Different accents include a contribution from the sonic elements already mentioned, together with differences in pronunciation of variable degree.

Sounds which are not from the voice at all, such as clearing the throat, coughing, sniffing, snorting, sighing, giggling, a sudden inhalation, a sudden exhalation, wheezing, noises from the gastro-intestinal tract and so on, also contribute to the sum total of the auditory messages which are being received.

Sounds from the environment are also significant, especially if they are loud enough to compete with speech. Floor polishers, leaf blowers, loud music and car alarms are some obvious examples, but even a creaking chair, or a loudly ticking clock, might be a distraction in some circumstances.

Finally, the absence of sound can be a powerful form of communication. Indeed, silence can sometimes say more than words. However, it must be used with care, as it is easily misunderstood, and can be quite confronting when prolonged. Extending a silence for long enough to encourage the other person to talk, but not long enough to cause distress, requires some experience and sensitivity, and must be guided, as always, by the non-verbal clues provided by the other person.

Direct Contact

Tactile sensation, though not usually as important as sight and hearing, is nevertheless a major input. Apart from communicating with words via braille, the tactile input is used almost exclusively for non-verbal communication. Because it is mediated by direct physical contact, its use is governed to a great extent by cultural guidelines relating to such contact.

Direct contact might occasionally be misunderstood, especially by a timid person, as aggression. However, aggressive contact is not usually very ambiguous. By far the most common problem, when communicating by touch, is the possibility that it might be misunderstood as having a sexual motivation.

This varies enormously, both with culture and with time. My remarks will relate to Australian society at the time of writing (2008). However, even within a single culture at a given time, there are variations in what is considered acceptable.

Concerns about physical contact depend to a great extent on the gender and sexual orientation of the parties involved. If both are of the same gender, and both are heterosexual, there is relatively little likelihood that well-meant physical contact of a conventional nature will be seriously misunderstood. It might, however, cause embarrassment if the receiver is unused to it.

The same usually applies if the person making the contact is female, and the recipient is male – regardless of sexual orientation. For example, I have not heard of an Australian man complaining of feeling violated or otherwise attacked as a result of receiving a hug from a female counsellor or doctor. Of course, that does not mean that it will never happen.

When the parties to the transaction are of the opposite gender and the recipient is female, there is a greater risk of misunderstanding, which can have serious results. If tactile communication is interpreted as sexual harassment, it will not only be embarrassing, but could also have legal repercussions; and good intentions might prove to be an insufficient defence.

Nevertheless, some examples of tactile communication survive. Handshaking, for example, is still widely practised. It is common when meeting or departing, in a wide variety of situations. It is almost always combined with eye contact, and a face to face orientation is usual when circumstances permit.

Although very widespread, handshaking is not devoid of potential difficulties. In some Muslim cultures, for example, handshaking between men and women is not acceptable at all. In any culture, the duration of a handshake could influence its acceptability. If unusually prolonged, it would no longer be a conventional gesture. At some point, it would begin to seem intrusive or eccentric, and ultimately aggressive.

The eye contact associated with handshaking, along with any other non-verbal behaviour noticed in the other person, should make it clear when the duration of a handshake (or any other contact) has become unwelcome. However, like all feedback, this will only work for you if you are paying attention.

It is also important to be aware of the possibility of arthritis or osteoporosis when shaking hands, especially in older people, and to apply minimal or even zero pressure as appropriate. This can be done while keeping your own hand slightly stiffened, which creates a vague impression that a grasp is occurring.[7]

Apart from handshaking, it is really very difficult to say what type of physical contact is usually accepted as a part of normal communication in a particular society. Those who work in Australian government departments, however, cannot complain of being kept entirely in the dark, as they receive plenty of circulars explaining how they should not behave!

These sometimes make for amusing reading (unless, perhaps, you are a member of the target audience). I have recently heard that patting a colleague on the forearm is considered quite inappropriate and possibly illegal. I await the demise of the shoulder and upper back, as acceptable contact zones, with a certain degree of fatalism.

Despite such hazards, I am not quite ready to give up on tactile communication. Instead, I will muster up what courage I have left and consider another common example – the humble hug. This gesture has a lot in common with the handshake, as it most commonly occurs as an accompaniment to hello or goodbye. Indeed, in some cases, a handshake metamorphoses into a hug in mid flight. However it arises, a hug is generally seen as less formal, and more friendly, than a handshake.

Other common situations which often include a hug are comforting a person who is distressed, and thanking someone for something. Hugging is widely practised in Australia, and also in many other countries. It is more common in Australia than it is England, but the United States of America probably has the highest hug rate of any English speaking country.

Hugs are less likely to occur in the absence of a reasonable rapport between the protagonists. They are also less common, in many countries, when both parties are male. Older male heterosexual Australians, for example, are often embarrassed (and may even become violent!) when hugged by other males.

The above generalisations may allow an approximate prediction of the likelihood of a hug making a positive contribution to communication in a particular case, but they cannot ever provide a definite answer. Fortunately, though, there is a preliminary phase to every such skirmish, when one party, by way of increasing limb trajectory and diminishing range, provides clear evidence of an impending engagement!

The other party can then choose whether to advance or retreat. If a feat of arms does ensue, it is important to pay attention to the prisoner's behaviour while confined. Specifically, it is necessary to notice promptly when he or she is trying to escape again. Alternatively, you might decide that it is time you escaped yourself. Ultimately, the mutual prisoners should release each other in good condition and without a struggle.

One thing I have not discussed under this heading is the subjective quality of tactile messages. As well as the presence or absence of touch, there is enormous variation in its quality. This is very important. However, I don't think there is much point discussing different qualities of touch in words. Instead, I would commend the personal, subjective study of quality of touch to every person interested in communication.

Well, I have only covered a very few examples of tactile communication under this heading, but I think they at least illustrate the sorts of issues which may be encountered. Perhaps my comments have discouraged you from including contact in your repertoire of communication skills. I think that would be unfortunate. On the other hand, perhaps I have just discouraged you from coming to Australia! I do hope I have not done that.

Consent Issues

Apart from a few exceptions created by legislation, anything which directly affects another person's body requires that person's consent. Without consent, the intrusion would be a form of assault. In most everyday situations, consent is negotiated informally, and often non-verbally. The behaviour which may lead to a hug, as discussed under the previous heading, is one example of such informally negotiated consent.

In the case of the direct contact employed in physical examination, in the context of health care, the consent process often needs to be formal. Doctors, nurses and other health care personnel frequently need to touch various parts of a patient's body in the course of diagnosis or treatment. However, that does not mean that the patient's consent can be assumed.

The boundary between implied and explicit consent for medical examination has moved greatly over the last few decades. When I entered practice in 1970, stepping into a doctor's consulting room more or less implied consent for visual and tactile examination of any part of the body which could be reached without making a surgical incision.

Recently, in sharp contrast, I have read of doctors requiring informed and express verbal consent before wrapping a blood pressure cuff around a patient's arm. As for routine gynaecological examinations and tests, an increasing proportion of male doctors simply refuse to do them. They argue that, if a complaint is made, it will be taken very seriously – and may easily take years to resolve.

While such complaint hearings are pending, doctors have occasionally been murdered, or have committed suicide. More often, though, the doctor simply decides on a change of career. Looked at from this perspective, the idea of a male doctor excluding gynaecology from his practice appears less surprising – though no less detrimental to patient care.

I cannot suggest a comprehensive solution to this problem, though good communication at every stage of every consultation goes a long way towards reducing the likelihood of a complaint. I think all health care workers will soon be affected, though doctors are presently in the vanguard.

Providers of indemnity cover are taking an increasingly pro-active approach to risk management of all sorts, and perhaps their efforts will result in a practicable and effective remedy. If not, health care will simply be less effective, resulting in considerable unnecessary suffering, and sometimes loss of life.

Personal Qualities

Having looked briefly at quite a few of the practical aspects of non-verbal communication, I now come to the most important one of all. In most cases, the personal qualities of the communicators themselves have more influence on the quality of their non-verbal communication than any other factor.

No matter how much you learn about communication, what you know will never be as important as what you are. You bring the whole of yourself to the communication process whether you like it or not. The main reason for this is that a very significant proportion of non-verbal communication occurs without conscious intent or awareness on either side.

What you are is, of course, much easier to refer to than to define. There are many facets to what a person is. When discussing the qualities needed by facilitators of emotional catharsis in my first book, "Wanterfall",[8] I did so under the headings personality, attitudes, knowledge, skills, experience and focus.

The qualities I discussed under those headings are essentially the same as those which improve non-verbal communication. That in turn improves any interpersonal interaction, and especially counselling. I will not discuss all of the qualities which I discussed under those headings here, as the book just mentioned is easily available (and free).

However, I will comment briefly on three of them – a non-judgmental attitude, an urge to help, and the practice of self-awareness. Especially in the case of counselling, I think the most important personal quality of all is the extent to which one is able and willing to be non-judgmental about information and behaviour which become apparent during the interaction.

Not only is a non-judgmental attitude a prerequisite for further disclosures and a continuing good rapport, it is also useful as a way of teaching the client by example. So many of the problems which bring clients to counselling are at least partly underpinned by self-condemnation resulting from a judgmental attitude, that anything which helps to break that vicious circle may well be the most beneficial aspect of the whole process.

The next thing I promised to comment on was an urge to help. This might sound like an obvious quality for someone in a helping profession to have, but obvious and actual do not always coincide. If the urge to help is weak, most clients will notice the fact quite soon.

They might then "vote with their feet", which puts them back where they started, looking for a suitable counsellor. From the point of view of the provider, working in any helping profession without an underlying urge to help is usually both stressful and unrewarding – two of the worst possible adjectives to add to any job description!

If that is the situation, then the sooner you notice it, the better. Noticing things like that brings me to the last thing I promised to comment on, self-awareness. This is simply the awareness of what goes on in your own mind, from moment to moment – preferably all day long. I think it is tremendously important, not only for good communication, but for every aspect of life.

Personally, I think the best way for anyone to improve their self-awareness is simply to practice the "non-judgmental self-awareness" technique which I described at some length in "Wanterfall", the book mentioned earlier under this heading – but then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

The "Johari Window"

Another way of attempting to gain some insight into one's personal awareness is the Johari[9] Windowátechnique, which compares a person's choice of adjectives for self-description (from a specific list) with those chosen from the same list by that person's friends or colleagues.

The results are then tabulated in four quadrants (called the "panes" of the "window"). For example, if both you and your colleagues think that you are shy, that quality would be placed in your "arena" pane to illustrate the fact that it is known to both self and others. Similarly, the results obtained for the other adjectives in the list are placed as described in the "panes" of the sample "window" shown in the following illustration.

Explanation of the Johari Window[10]

While nowhere near as important to the development of an understanding of one's inner environment as the routine practice of non-judgmental self-awareness, the Johari Window technique can certainly provide interesting and useful insights.


Noticing examples of non-verbal communication can be a fascinating pastime, but to be valuable in real life situations, it needs to be merged with the rest of the communication process. This means learning to notice without the noticing being noticed by others, and also learning to use non-verbal output in ways that do not draw attention to themselves.

In other words, all the nuts and bolts need to be in all the right places, with none of them sticking out. Artifice may sometimes play a useful part, but only if it is not apparent. Active Listening, which is discussed in the next chapter, is one valuable approach to the integration of verbal and non-verbal communication skills in a practical context.

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[1] Mehrabian, A. 1971. Silent messages. Wadsworth, Belmont, California.

[2] Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1969). The repertoire of nonverbal behavior: Categories, origins, usage, and coding. Semiotica, 1, 49- 98.

[3] The development of mutual understanding, trust and co-operation known as rapport is indispensable in virtually all interpersonal communication, whether the context is therapeutic, commercial or social.

[4] Wikipedia contributors. Gesture. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Modified on 12 December 2008, at 08:04 AEST. Available at: Accessed December 18, 2008.

[5] When a threat is perceived, neuronal signals travel from the cerebral cortex to the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (a specialised part of the peripheral nervous system which automatically controls all those bodily functions that go on constantly without our conscious awareness). The autonomic nervous system then responds by stimulating the release of adrenaline (as well as various other substances) from nerve endings in many parts of the body, and also from the adrenal glands. This enhances the body's ability to make the extreme efforts necessary either during combat or when escaping from danger, hence the name "fight or flight response". However, it also causes various other effects (some of which can sometimes precipitate or prolong an anxiety state).

[6] Timbre is the tonal quality imparted to a sound by its harmonics, i.e. all the frequencies present in the sound apart from its fundamental pitch. Notes of the same pitch can have an infinite variation in timbre.

[7] Some people with arthritis offer two fingers to be shaken, especially if, as in the case of a vicar after a service, they will be shaken many times. This prevents their tormentors from getting a grip around the metacarpal bones, thus lessening the risk of bone or joint injury.

[8] Coates, G.T. 2008. Wanterfall: A practical approach to the understanding and healing of the emotions of everyday life. Free e-book from

[9] Luft, J, Ingham, H (1955) "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness", Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: UCLA.

[10] The usual meaning of "fašade" (the name given to the lower left pane of the Johari Window) is the front or exterior face which a building presents to the world (especially if it looks better than what lies behind it).


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