Are You Talking to Me? Tackling Communication Issues (Part 2)

    In the first part of this series, we explored three issues that interfere with effective verbal communication (see Part 1 for all of the details).  This second part of the series will address issues beyond verbal communication.  We will explore other ways that we communicate with our body and voice.

Other types of communication

         It is easy to grasp verbal communication.  We pay attention to what we are saying and, by default, we are working on our verbal communication.  The issues that we will explore here are a bit more nebulous and can be more difficult to comprehend (but if I do a good job, you will be able to understand it in short order).  Let’s break down these other types of communication into 3 broad categories: nonverbal factors, paraverbal factors, and interactional relationships.


Nonverbal Factors


         Very broadly, nonverbal communication is conveying a message with your body instead of your voice.  You can think of a teenager’s unique ability to communicate that they have way better things to do simply with an eye roll and a sassy posture.   3

Yep, just like that.  She is clearly communicating some things here with her body posture and where she is directing her gaze (away from Dad, who is either doing a Gilbert Gottfried impersonation or is clearly communicating frustration with his own nonverbal communication).

Many things fall under the non-verbal category, including:

  • Clothing – Have you ever been embarrassed by showing up at a function in the wrong dress (you show up in formal wear at a casual event)? Your embarrassment stems in part from the fact that you are communicating things that you did not intend to with your appearance (in this example it would be things such as “I did not read the invitation thoroughly” or “I am more important than others” or “look at me, I have fancy clothes and clearly make a lot of money.”).  It is likely that you do not intend to send these messages and would not verbalize them, but that is what your clothing communicates.
  • Grooming – If we answer the door and look like we have emerged from hibernation, 4 we are likely communicating that we were not expecting company. Your level of grooming (or lack thereof) can communicate things about how you feel about yourself or about how you feel about the situation in which you are engaging (a well-groomed person showing up for a job interview is  demonstrating to a prospective employer that they are taking this opportunity seriously).
  • Posture – We communicate a lot about our level of engagement in a conversation through posture. Leaning in suggests that we are attentive and engaged.  Open body posture (arms uncrossed, shoulders squared) suggests that we are open to the conversation and what the other person is saying.  On the other hand, closed or hunched body posture tends to communicate that we are not open to talking.  Open or closed body posture also has the ability to communicate about how we may feel about ourselves.  Compare these to images:


Our guy on the left apparently has missed the memo that people here are having a great time.  His posture communicates that he is not having fun, probably does not want to talk to us, and perhaps does not hold himself in high esteem.  Our guy on the right exudes confidence.  His posture is upright and open and he thus appears to be confident and approachable.

  • Touching – shaking someone’s hand, slapping their back, giving a high five or a pat on the shoulder, brushing an arm. These all communicate messages nonverbally.  If we watch two people in conversation and can’t hear what they are saying, we can gather a lot of information based solely on how much and what type of touching they engage in.  (Think of how differently you would touch your boss as compared to your best friend.)
  • Eye contact – this is a major way that we communicate engagement with another person. Maintaining appropriate eye contact (which happens to be culturally specific: what is appropriate for a Caucasian American is different from a Native American which is different from someone from Japan) communicates active involvement whereas avoiding eye contact communicates either a desire to leave the interaction or some type of discomfort.

All of these factors comprise the nonverbal side of communication.  Using these factors alone, we are able to communicate volumes to another person without ever having to say a word.  When we see a picture of another person, the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” may actually be true as we have access to most or all of these nonverbal factors.


Paraverbal Factors


         Verbal communication, in the form of what we say, was explored in depth in Part 1 of our exploration of communication.  In Part 2, we will focus on how we say what we say.  In the picture above, you can tell that the people are speaking loudly to one another.  This may appear to be an angry exchange, even though we have no way of knowing what is being said.  The study of cues of the voice is called paralanguage or vocalics.  I label how we say what we say as paraverbal communication (I just think this rolls off the tongue more easily than do either of the other two).  Several things encompass our paraverbal communication, including:

  • Volume – how loud are we saying things? This can range from a barely audible whisper to a full-bore yell.
  • Pitch – are we using our normal speaking voice or making it lower or higher pitch than usual? Say the following statement out loud in your normal pitch: “I thought that movie was really good.”  Now, say the same statement but use a high-pitched voice for the bolded part: “I thought that movie was really good.”  This version may have either sounded sarcastic or excited, but it certainly sounded different than the first version.  Next, say the same statement, but use an emphatic tone, perhaps by lowering the pitch of your voice, for the bolded part: “I thought the movie was really good.”  Here, we use pitch to reflect that this is our opinion.  Again, it changes the intention of the message even though the words themselves are identical.
  • Tempo – how rapidly or slowly are we speaking? A fast tempo typically suggests excitement whereas a slow tempo tends to impart a seriousness or importance to what we are saying.
  • Articulation – how pronounced is our annunciation of our words? We can mumble or use extra emphasis or more precise articulation to change the meaning of what we say.
  • Accent – from what region of the country or the world does our use of language originate? If we are speaking to others in our native accent, this likely does not have specific significance, but a deliberate change in one’s accent typically is a technique used to lend emphasis or to attempt to change the meaning of the words we are saying.
  • Characterizers – are we expressing any emotion along with what we are saying? Laughing, crying, or yawning are some examples.
  • Vocal segregates – are we using any sounds to let the other person know we are listening? Mmm-hmmm, oh, uh-huh are some examples.


Interactional Relationships


         Interactional factors involve the relationship between the first two topics presented here (nonverbal and verbal factors) and the actual words that we are saying.  As with the yin and yang symbol above, two things interact with one another to bring the entire picture into focus.  Each of the the halves contributes to the overall impression or shape of our message.  The relationship between these factors can fall into one of the following categories:

  • Repeating – what we are saying is reinforced and strengthened by our paraverbal and nonverbal communication. This is where we may gesture to a person or thing that we are talking about.  You can think of this as having the same effect as literally repeating what you have said in order to bring more attention to your words.  Imagine you say “I welcome your feedback” and use a hand gesture to wave the person towards yourself.  This gesture means, “bring it to me” and therefore repeats your verbal message.
  • Complementing – what we say and our paraverbal/nonverbal communication are in line with one another. This is similar to repeating but does not have the redundancy felt with repetition.  In the complementing style, saying “I welcome your feedback” is complemented by an open body posture, a warm smile, and steady but non-confrontational eye contact.  Your body thus communicates a message of openness and a welcoming vibe which matches your verbal statement.
  • Substituting – this is where we use nonverbal communication in lieu of verbal statements. You can imagine this happening if you walk into the office of someone who is on the phone, and they either:
    • Direct you to leave the office by shaking their head and frowning
    • Invite you in by smiling and extending their arm to an open chair. They may even hold up a finger (their index, that is – a different finger would communicate a different message) to indicate they will be with you in a moment.
    • Let you know the call they are on is unimportant by rolling their eyes or doing the “chatty talker” gesture with their hand


Each of these would communicate very different intent, without a word                                   being said, which is the essence of substituting.

  • Accenting/Moderating – this is where your verbal message is altered by paraverbal or nonverbals. It can serve to either amp up or tone down your verbal message.
  • Conflicting – this is where there are mixed messages and what you are saying does not match up with your paraverbal and/or nonverbal communication. The important thing to note here is that people place more weight upon the paraverbal and nonverbal messages than the verbal ones.

It is important to know these interactional relationships because many times miscommunication stems from a poor match between our verbal messages and paraverbal/nonverbal messages.  If you find yourself consistently saying things like “I did not mean that the way in which you took it” or “you are reading into what I said” these are good signs that you should look towards these other ways that we communicate beyond just our words.


  • Nonverbal communication comprises the ways that our bodies communicate messages without having to say a word.
  • Paraverbal communication is how we say what we are saying and mainly involves the varied inflections of our voice.
  • Interactional relationships look at the overall picture of how our verbal, non-verbal, and paraverbal communication work together to support or at times negate the messages being sent.

Part 3 in the series on communication will tackle the last and most frequently overlooked part of communicating: listening.

Written January 28, 2016
Edited by Shirley Sachs

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