I invite you to consider something that maybe you haven’t thought about a lot, yet which has great impact in your life. It is this:
People who are able to effectively perceive and interpret nonverbal communication—and manage the nonverbal signals they transmit to others—will achieve greater success in life and more enjoyment from personal connections than those who lack this skill.
Daniel Goleman, an expert in brain and behavioral sciences, says that, “Ninety percent of emotional information is communicated nonverbally.” Maybe you’ve noticed the truth of that statement in your own communications with others.
It’s a fascinating topic, and one I’ve been researching recently in connection with my latest novel. As a writer of crime fiction, I have several reasons to be interested in nonverbal communication.
Being a human lie detector
The ability to read and interpret nonverbal signals is particularly useful in many law enforcement situations.
Police officials need to be able to effectively gauge behavior in those with whom they interact.
Interrogators pay close attention to a suspect’s nonverbal communication and use what they learn to further their investigations.
Profilers study body language, facial micro-expressions, and other nonverbal signals to help put together profiles of criminal behavior.
The stories I write often feature characters in positions of law enforcement, as well as many perpetrators of crime. So it behooves me to learn all I can about the subject.
The power of subtext
On-the-nose writing, or simply telling how it is on the surface, can be tedious and less than compelling. Subtext, on the other hand, can give a scene layers of meaning and rivet readers to the page.
Like a puzzle, subtext puts the reader’s brain to work, letting us piece together clues to arrive at the emotional truth of the scene. It makes the story more engaging and more memorable because the truth of a scene lies not in the words, but in the crux between word and action.
One of the most powerful ways to create subtext is by incorporating nonverbal communication that belies the surface meaning of the scene’s dialogue. Here’s a famous example from When Harry Met Sally.
In the interrogation room, interviewers can sometimes get to the subtext of a suspect’s interview to help solve a crime.
For example, special agent Joe Navarro, of the FBI, was able to get a confession from a rapist because in his statement, the suspect claimed he hadn’t seen the victim, had walked across a field, turned left, and went straight home. Agent Navarro noticed that as the suspect said he turned left, his hand gestured to his right, in the direction which led to the rape scene. Navarro waited, then confronted the suspect again and in the end, he confessed.
The flipside of actions that don’t match the words, is actions that are congruent with what’s being said. And that’s what I use when I want to convey a character who’s honest, trustworthy, and dependable. I make them as good as their word.
Just like an actor on stage, I give my characters “stage business,” something to do while they deliver their lines. Because that’s what real people do. We rarely remain static while speaking to others. We multi-task, we occupy ourselves with some kind of activity. And what we do often says a lot about who we are. Or who we’re trying to become.
Actions speak louder than words
Body language—our nonverbal communication—is a hugely important part of the messages we send. And those we receive from others.
If you can observe the world around you and determine the significance of nonverbal signals in any situation, you can enhance and enrich your personal communications.
And your life.
How about you? Have you noticed the impact of nonverbal communication in your life? Share with us in the comments, if you like.