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In this lesson, you will learn where non-verbal communication comes from and why people display non-verbals cues. You will also see several examples of non-verbal communication that you will be able to spot in others.

What is Non-Verbal Communication?

How good of a poker player are you? Every good player knows that the secret to winning is to never let the other players know when you have a good hand. How often would you win if you always knew what kind of hand your opponents held? The other players are telling you about their cards with non-verbal communication; do you know what to look for? The phrase ‘poker face’ has come to mean ‘hiding your emotions;’ however, a professional poker player knows to watch his or her opponents’ entire body for non-verbal cues, not just the person’s face.Non-verbal communication is as much a language as English, Spanish, or French; it is a form of communicating with others.

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Like other languages, non-verbal communication is used to carry your message to those around you. Sometimes the message is intentional, such as giving someone a thumbs up sign, and sometimes the message is from the unconscious mind and automatic, such as turning red in the face when you become angry.Non-verbal communication, or wordless communication based mostly on visual cues, is most likely the oldest form of communication known to man. Long before the first words were spoken or the first grunts uttered, man communicated with others through non-verbals. When early man became angry, his body language indicated his aggression towards others. If he became fearful, his body language communicated that as well.Although verbal language originates in the frontal lobes of the brain, unconscious non-verbals come from the temporal lobes; they are instinctual.

One of the functions of the temporal lobes is survival skills, which is the area that is responsible for non-verbal communication. Simply stated, verbal language formulates in our thinking brain and therefore can be controlled; non-verbal communication originates in our instinctual brain and is very difficult (sometimes impossible) to control.

Fight or Flight (or Freeze)

Because non-verbals are instinctual, understanding the freeze, flight, or fight response can aid in recognizing non-verbal cues in others.

During the early appearance of man, survival skills were essential and a part of daily life. Survival instincts that developed included the freeze, flight, or fight response. When threatened (imagine hearing the roar of a saber-tooth tiger), man’s first response was to freeze in place while assessing the danger. His next response involved taking flight to get away from the danger. Finally, when there were no other options, he turned to fight the threat.Although there aren’t a lot of saber-tooth tigers running around today, man’s instinctual responses remain buried in the temporal lobes. Many of the non-verbal cues you present today go back to your saber-tooth tiger days.

When observing non-verbals in others, watch for signs of freeze, flight, or fight. A trained observer can find them in the smallest nuances of human behavior, and understanding what the responses mean can tell a great deal about the individual.The following are examples of freeze, flight, or fight non-verbals:

  • Turning feet away or toward the door – This indicates the person would like to leave (flight response).
  • Covering mouth with hand – This behavior indicates that even though the person is talking there is something they wish to not say (freeze response).
  • Eyes suddenly open wide – This may indicate the individual has perceived a sudden threat and is looking for an escape route (freeze response).
  • Moving away or leaning back – This behavior usually indicates the person feels threatened and is putting distance between him or her and the perceived threat (flight response).

In every case of freeze, flight, or fight, the response indicates the individual feels threatened by something.

Pacifying Behaviors

No one likes to be uncomfortable. When you find yourself uncomfortable, the natural response is to try to make yourself feel better. Imagine sitting in a chair and becoming aware that something is poking you in the side. Your instinct will be to move to a different position so you won’t be poked anymore. You move to make yourself more comfortable.

People do the same thing unconsciously when they feel mental or emotional distress. When they feel uncomfortable, they try to make themselves more comfortable. For example, if in the middle of a conversation one person starts coughing uncontrollably, the other person will usually look away because staring makes him or her uncomfortable. Although this is an obvious example, most pacifying behaviors are usually more subtle.Often, the person performing the pacifying behavior doesn’t even realize he or she is doing it. Pacifying behaviors indicate the individual is uncomfortable about something and is trying to make him or herself feel more comfortable.

Examples of pacifying behaviors include:

  • Rubbing the back of the neck – Common pacifying behavior among men
  • Clutching a necklace – Common pacifying behavior among women
  • Stroking the face or the back of the hand – This behavior indicates the individual feels a need to calm him or herself and uses self-petting to relieve tension

Lying

Although many people claim to be able to tell when someone is lying through non-verbals, it really is not that simple. Non-verbals indicate how someone is feeling (stressed, uncomfortable, etc;) and therefore don’t indicate specifically when someone is lying; the non-verbal cues merely tell you when someone’s emotions are high. Although becoming stressed when asked a question may indicate someone is lying, it may just as easily indicate the question simply made the person uncomfortable. The individual could still be telling the truth.

Lesson Summary

Non-verbal communication is wordless communication based mostly on visual cues. Long before the first words were spoken or the first grunts uttered, man communicated with others through non-verbals. Because non-verbals are instinctual, understanding the freeze, flight, or fight response can aid in recognizing non-verbal cues in others. Pacifying behaviors indicate the individual is uncomfortable about something and is trying to make him or herself feel more comfortable.

Although many people claim to be able to tell when someone is lying through non-verbals, it’s really not that simple. Non-verbals indicate how someone is feeling (stressed, uncomfortable, etc.) and therefore don’t indicate specifically when someone is lying; the non-verbal cues merely tell you when someone’s emotions are high.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • State what non-verbal communication is
  • Explain why non-verbal communication is difficult to control
  • Describe the freeze, flight or flight response and list some of the associated non-verbal cues
  • Recall what pacifying behaviors can indicate
  • Discuss why we cannot necessarily tell if someone is lying based on non-verbal cues

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