Career Column

The Power of Nonverbal Communication: Saying Everything Without Saying Anything

Ruth H. Nobile
Bayer Pharmaceuticals
Rutgers University


hink back to the last time you were on an airline flight. You probably experienced some turbulence. You probably heard the Captain repeat the same words about the fasten seat belt sign and remaining in your seat that are heard countless times each day in airplanes all over the world. And you probably saw your flight attendants casually sit down to ride out the turbulence with the pages of a good magazine, so relaxed they seemed to wordlessly say, “There’s nothing to worry about here.”

Now imagine this same flight, this same turbulence, and these same words. But this time your flight attendants clutch and hold onto each other and cry. Loudly.

In 1971, Albert Mehrabian, a professor at UCLA, published a book called Silent Messages. He claimed that 93 percent of what we say to people, we say without words; more specifically, 55 percent of communication is done through body language and 38 percent through tone. Only the remaining seven percent of what we say is said with spoken words.

This “seven percent rule” is generally accepted as the starting point for any conversation about the power of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is a subtle, yet profound form of social messaging, and it affects nearly every part of our daily lives. It is important that we learn and understand the impact of our tone and body language on people around us, and how to control that impact.

Just how powerful is nonverbal communication? It even transcends species. When a dog tilts its head to one side, it’s not trying to be cute; instead, it’s trying to get a better look at your face and body. Researchers have found that dogs are remarkably perceptive and can pick up on subtle changes in our demeanor to tease out different messages. One obstacle to this, though, is their nose, so they tilt their head to see around it.

Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestselling collection of short stories, What The Dog Saw, cites research by world-renowned dog trainer Cesar Milan, who suggests that when dogs get into fights at the park, they are instigated by their owners, not the dogs. Some owners become tense when they see another dog approaching, Milan explains, and communicate this to their dog by pulling tighter on the leash, barking commands, and keeping a distance. Even if unintentional, this sends a message to their dog: “I’m scared, and you should be too.” The dog reacts accordingly.

If this profound impact of our body language and tone affects animals, imagine what it does to the people around us. When a manager appears stressed about an upcoming deadline, his team will likely be affected. If a new employee is nervous about communicating their opinion, their co-workers will likely lose confidence in their ability.

Amy Cuddy, professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, is a major proponent of the influence body language can have on those around us. In her groundbreaking TED Talk, she detailed how power poses, smiling, and other forms of positive body language can be linked not only to an optimistic disposition, but can greatly impact our performance and the way we carry ourselves. Her research concludes that even if we initially lack self-confidence, how we position our bodies can create a positive domino effect in how we feel about ourselves and thus how we are perceived by others.

I experienced the impact of nonverbal communication while leading my first team meeting. I spent many hours preparing and was confident about what I wanted to communicate. However, when I walked in and felt a room full of eyes on me, I was intimidated. My body language started to change: I stopped smiling, my shoulders started to sink, and even the tone of my voice was off. I was quickly losing the focus of people in the room, as my lack of self-confidence caused them to lose confidence in me. I eventually managed to overcome these non-verbal cues, regained trust in myself, and won back the team’s attention.

Being aware of your body language and tone is very important, no matter the situation you are in or your level of experience. Even if you have the best presentation or speech, nonverbal communication is the key to saying everything without saying anything.

References available upon request.