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Nonverbal Signals
During Conversation

When you're aware of the unspoken signals you send out in company, you can consciously adjust them to fit the situation

By Loren Ekroth

Nonverbal signals are often more important than the words expressed. Even more than words, nonverbal cues indicate the relationship among conversers.

Social psychologist Albert Mehrabian illuminated this matter by describing three dimensions of nonverbal signals we give off during conversation.

Based on his research, he termed these dimensions immediacy, power, and responsiveness. In his book Nonverbal Communication (1972), and later books and articles, he described these signals.


The first dimension, immediacy, relates to spacing between conversers. It is based on the principle that people are attracted to things they like and repelled by things they don’t like.

We move closer to people and ideas we like. Perhaps we lean toward them and make gestures that intend to bring closer the things we like.

When we don’t like a person or the ideas we hear, we tend to keep a greater distance and lean away. Also , we may contract our posture with folded arms.


The second dimension -- that of power -- is characterized by big, expansive movements that symbolically suggest dominance.

Standing erect and occupying a lot of space suggest “I’m in charge here.” President Lyndon Johnson, already a big man, was often described in terms of Texas-sized movements and sweeping gestures. He was truly a “high power” converser.

Low power is signaled by small and hesitant gestures and movements and posture that takes up less space, perhaps with body slumped over and arms held in.


The third dimension, responsiveness, signals the intensity of our feelings about the person or subject.

When we react a lot, we show the strength of our feelings. When we react only a little, we show what might be lack of concern or indifference.

During social conversation, it is almost always helpful to be fully responsive because this demonstrates to other conversers that we are with them, alive to the situation, and fully involved. Our head-nods, facial expressions, and body movements provide signals to others that we are following them closely.

Generally, these body signals we give off are out of our awareness. They are our unconscious responses to the incoming expressions of others.

Sometimes they are incongruent and contradict our words, as when a salesperson prepares a carefully worded sales pitch but then contradicts the words with a meek and unenthusiastic presentation, or when a sports coach, hoping to be seen as the leader, moves timidly and with hesitation.

Medical students receiving communication training for effective doctor-patient relationships have sometimes been surprised when they viewed videos of their interaction. Instead of expressing immediacy (showing liking and warmth), they sometimes appeared distant and aloof, thereby signaling to the patient a lack of caring.

As we know, the healing process of patients is directly correlated with the type of feelings expressed by the physicians. More immediate and responsive expressions show the kind of caring that encourages and reassures patients.

On the other hand, doctors who appear aloof and uninvolved with patients impede the healing process. Such doctors are sued for malpractice more often by patients and their families than those who expressed caring and involvement.

When you are aware of the signals you give off, you can consciously adjust them to fit the situation. For example, as a subordinate, you may be more appropriate when you express fewer power signals, thereby expressing that you know who’s in charge. Being mindful of your nonverbal expressions will allow you to choose more effective ones.

Loren Ekroth ©2004

Loren Ekroth is a speaker and author in Las Vegas. His weekly skill-building ezine, Conversation Pieces, can be subscribed to at his website, ConversationMatters.com

Some Related Articles:

No Talking, Just Listening!
Using Body Position to Defuse Angry People
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Make a Connection: Seven Secrets to Great Handshakes
Debunking the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule
How Do You Sound to Others?
Six Common Mistakes That Spoil Conversations
Five Effective Ways to Make Your Body Speak
The Lies That Saved a Judge

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