Non-verbal communication

First impressions

Like it or not, we all form lasting impressions very soon after meeting someone for the first time all based on non-verbal communication.

Two vital implications are:

You never get a second chance to create a first impression.

To ensure success, you need to anticipate and manage the first few moments of  any new interaction.



It’s not what you say…

         ….it’s the way that you say it!

Communication is a combination of Words, Music and Dance.

When we are communicating with others our judgements may be made based on feelings and attitudes (ie our likes and dislikes).

Research by Mehrabian suggests the following breakdown of Words, Music (tone of voice) and Dance (body language) that influence us.

Words 7% music 38% dance 55%

Therefore non-verbal communication has much more impact than the words we use.

First impressions count.

Like it or not, we all form lasting impressions very soon after meeting someone for the first time based on non- verbal communications.

Two vital implications are:

You never get a second chance to create a first impression.

 To ensure success, you need to anticipate and manage the first few moments of  any new interaction.

15-20 feet away

I already start to make judgements about you, based on the following signals:

Your responses

Your stance - how you hold your body.

Initial eye contact.


5-10 feet away 

I can now see you better, and extra information is available:

Eyebrow 'movement.

Quality of smile.

Closer eye contact; mutual gaze.

Other facial features.

More signals from your body language.

More detail about your grooming.

2-3 feet away

The quantity and quality of signals is increasing dramatically:

Handshake - what type? Firm? Limp? Moist? Who's in control?

Other facial features, eg bottom lip.

Comparative heights.

Skin coloration.

Your rate of breathing.

The size of your eye pupils. 

Your personal space.

Body language cues

How we sit or stand in relation to another person leaks subconscious cues, through non-verbal communications, about how we feel. if we are sitting with our shoulder pointing towards the other person, ‘showing the cold shoulder’ this will be interpreted as a defensive gesture and not very friendly. However if you face the other person with an open stance this shows a willingness to listen.


Crossing arms can be a comfortable way to sit or stand however the non-verbal communication of blocking off the other person can give a very different message. If also has a subconscious effect. Research of students has shown that those who are asked to sit during the lecture with their arms crossed are likely to absorb 25% less information that the students sitting with an open posture. So there is more to this than we may think.

Making eye contact

 Good eye contact shows an openness and honesty. When I have sat on interview panels I have observed that some people find it difficult to make eye contact.As a result they can appear shifty or lacking in conviction.

Some of the time it may be when they are answering questions. Of course when a question is asked most people will think about the answer before giving it.

Depending how they process information people may look up – to visualise the situation they are going to talk about, look to the left - to think about the situation or look down-to feel the situation. However they do need to also look at the interviewer when giving the answer.

 In personal situations eye contact can make other people feel either valued and interesting, or of no interest to the person they are talking to. We have all been in the situation  where someone we are conversing with is letting their eyes wander over your shoulder, looking for someone more interesting, and how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

 I was in the presence of Diana the Princess of Wales on a number of occasions and was very impressed by her non- verbal communication. She had a talent for concentrating fully on the person she was talking with, even if it was only for 30 seconds. Afterwards everyone spoke of feeling very special. 

Personal space

 How much personal space do we need in a social situation?

This varies between people and cultures. I often observe when one person is invading another’s personal space and watch the invaded person backing away then the other person moving forward again.

How do you deal with this? Sometimes when you move back you may also need to start making quite wide hand gestures as you talk in order to keep the space between you comfortable for you.

Male female personal space

 In most instances men and women feel more comfortable with different personal space. It is useful to recognise the differences so that in order to keep the other person comfortable you use their preferred method.

 Generally men feel more comfortable standing at an angle almost shoulder to shoulder with another man while in conversation.

They often feel more uncomfortable standing face to face. This goes way back into pre-history, when men stood face to face in order to fight each other. Strange how these things hang around.

 Women on the other hand prefer to stand face to face while talking. Standing at a closer angle feels more uncomfortable and they may feel their personal space is being invaded.

 I enjoy observing non-verbal communication at social events when a man and woman behave while having a conversation. The woman moves – discreetly – to face the man. The man moves – discreetly – to be more side on to the woman. Over the course of the conversation the couple can have moved a full circle. This subtle non-verbal communication is fascinating to watch.


The handshake

 When considering non-verbal communication the handshake may be the only physical contact you make with the other person whether at an interview or social occasion.

We make very strong decisions about someone from their handshake. Is it firm – or crushing? Do they have a sweaty palm? Is their handshake limp? Do they make eye contact while shaking hands? If they are seated do they stand? If you are seated do you stand? If not you may feel at a disadvantage, being looked down on.

 One client who came for career counselling had been a bank manager who was made redundant. When I first met him I shook his hand. He seemed reluctant to take my hand. His hand was very limp and he held my fingertips before quickly letting them go.

I asked if that was how he normally shook hands. He replied that he didn't normally shake hands with a woman – it made him feel uncomfortable. However that was how he shook hands with another man.

He had been for a number of interviews without getting a job. His handshake – or lack of it – was a major barrier to him getting to the next stage. It took considerable work and practice to get him comfortable with a firm handshake, although he did get a job offer very soon afterwards, so it was worthwhile.


If you enjoyed non-verbal communication you might like to link to asking for directions

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