On non verbal communication

It’s common to hear about non verbal communication as a synonym of body language. However, using both expressions as equivalent is wrong, because communication is a complex process, compounding many interdependent variables, that can’t be reduced only to the linguistic use of the body. A mere change in context affects meanings, and context is not something defined solely by the body of those interacting.

This being said, let me tell you the importance of non verbal communication is irreductible: a considerable portion of the meaning we exchange when communicating are of nonverbal nature (tone, posture, social context, dressing, cultural elements and many et ceteras), which makes the understanding of at least the basic rudimentaries of our non verbal communication a must, as a way to better understand how content, context and contact articulate in each interaction.

Paraphrasing Paul Ekman, I like to approach this subject with a quote that very effectively describes the nonverbal dimension of our communication:

Our thoughts are private, our emotions are not.

Ekman posits that it’s not posible to know what someone is thinking, but we can have a comprehensive vision of what they feel and, if we can understand what is happening with someone on an emotional level, we can connect, we can momentarily walk in their shoes, we can have access to the insight, we can get attuned with their inner vision, their desires and needs. From there, we can move on to understand their actions, why they do what they do, and build a bond based in trust, communicating in a common language.

Several years of studying Dr. Ekman’s work have left me many teachings, but the most important of all has to do with understanding what an emotion is. Delving a bit into etymology, we find that the term stems from de latin word emotĭo, which means ‘movement or impulse’, ‘that which moves us’. In turn, the word motivation derives from the latin motivus or motus, meaning “cause of movement”. This similarity is not casual.

People act based on the way they see the world. Their decisions are not rational, they are emotional. In light of this, understanding how the other person feels in a determined situation -or in a given context- gives us the possibility to infer what they’re thinking with greater precision. Why? Because understanding how someone sees the world is a way to access their story, the tale they tell themselves about how things are and how to act in consequence.

Understanding someone’s emotional configuration gives us a more complete vision of their perspective: to the verbal element, that is, to what they can say, we add the nonverbal element: what they feel about that which they can say. The part they can’t say about what they can say.

This is a difficult task, one that never ends and is never complete, but one that is definitely worthwile.