Nonverbal Communication Cues for Professionals

Effective communication is vital for any professional. Business relies on networks of mutual trust, understanding, respect and confidence. When you make deals or meet colleagues, what you say is important, but nonverbal cues are just as important, as they can positively or negatively impact or complicate what is being said.

Body posture

There’s a reason that parents correct their children’s posture. Good body posture connotes confidence in what you’re saying. Closing your arms and legs communicates that you’re closed off and unconfident. By contrast, an open posture with arms spread indicates that you’re open and self-assured. When listening, leaning forward indicates that you’re attentive and interested in what is being said. These subtle bodily clues enhance the quality of communication because they maintain the confidence and trust between the parties involved.

Physical gestures

Research on body language has identified 135 different physical gestures involving the body, face and head. Bodily gestures enhance communication because they provide reinforcing context to the message being communicated, which heightens its clarity. For example, a frown could indicate many things, whereas a frown plus a shaking head mutually reinforce each other such that negation is clearly expressed.

Eye contact and movement

Eye contact demonstrates interest and attention, and encourages mutual understanding and trust. Avoiding eye contact evinces discomfort, inattentiveness and dishonesty, and excessive eye movement can heighten this effect, as it also demonstrates boredom and disinterest. When you engage in active conversation and listening, be sure to make eye contact, as it eases the communication process by establishing mutual trust.

It is important to keep in mind, however, how cultural differences might change the effect of eye contact. In some cultures, for example, it is believed that one should not make eye contact because it demonstrates a lack of respect, whereas looking down shows deference.

Facial expressions

The face is the primary nonverbal communicator between human beings. People communicate, often involuntarily, with their faces all the time. To effectively communicate, the face should reinforce the message. For example, an expression of compassion and empathy—not a smile­­—should accompany a message of bad news. Expressions often mix signals and cause confusion because they can indicate that a person doesn’t really believe in what she is saying.


Pauses are necessary to language. They’re used between words, to commence the beginning of a new sentence, or to indicate a separate thought; however, pauses can indicate something outside of the internal functioning of language. Temporarily arresting speech can indicate discomfort, tension, hesitation and uncertainty. There are also pauses that communicate a judgment of favor or distaste. The risk with pauses is that they are often ambiguous and can negatively complicate communication.

Control of physical space

The control of physical space is a method of nonverbal communication that can indicate dominance and aggression, intimacy, respect, and many other things. Standing or sitting too close or too far apart can negatively impact communication. This also varies widely with cultural context. In business, the spatial layout of a room can set the tone for a negotiation.

Attention to physical appearance

For better or worse, one’s physical appearance impacts the way that person’s message is received. Research has shown that attractive people are better liked, are more successful and have more social power than people perceived as unattractive. An athletic body type connotes assertiveness and confidence. Greater height suggests dominance. It is important to be aware of how your and others’ physical appearance affects a conversation.

Touch and personal space

Edward T. Hall, who founded the field of research called “proxemics,” showed that physical proximity impacts interactions between human beings. Different distances indicate different levels of intimacy. For example, it would be inappropriate to advance to within a few inches of your employer, and it would send the wrong message and negatively impact your relationship with her. The same goes for touch. In a business transaction, there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of personal space and touch that can negatively impact a relationship and complicate a conversation.

Handshakes and other customary greeting cues

Handshakes are very important in business. A firm handshake with eye contact communicates confidence and positivity when meeting somebody. Especially in business, which relies on networks and relationships of confidence and trust, handshakes and other customary greeting cues—standing up when somebody enters a room, for instance, before gesturing to or pulling out a chair—establish mutual respect and trust, which are vital to the smooth functioning of business.

Vocal cues, audible noises and vocal tone

The tone in which you speak greatly impacts how your message will be received. Additionally, the noises you make as you listen can indicate attentiveness, discomfort and a variety of other orientations. When listening, for example, making occasional noises of affirmation shows extended engagement; when speaking, excessive “ums” can evince a lack of confidence.

Mastering communication as a project manager

As in any relationship, in business, communication is key. People who want to be successful in business need to be effective and sensitive communicators. A graduate degree in project management is a great option for students who want the interdisciplinary training in communication, leadership, technology, and corporate operations that will make them successful in business as they move into an increasingly complex global marketplace.

Learn More

Founded in 1948, Brandeis University is an internationally recognized research institution with the intimacy and personal attention of a small liberal arts college. Brandeis University is pleased to offer its M.S. in Project and Program Management (MSPPM) in a convenient online format for working professionals interested in project management.



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