Beware of interpreting Non Verbal Communication: You might be wrong!

Insights Association nvc

(c) Image: Insights Association

The objective of this article is to draw attention to a commonly found error in the analysis & interpretation of Non-Verbal Communication so that it can be avoided in the future.

This article is not designed to provide the reader with a “primer” on NVC.

Recently, there appears to have been a noticeable rise in the number of so-called “specialists” in Non Verbal Communication (NVC) who, instead of using science-based evidence, often apparently use “mind-reading”, to develop and divulge their interpretation of the meaning of the subject’s behaviour. What is even worse is that many “Specialists” appear to choose to interpret only one NVC indicator in order to reach an overall interpretation of the meaning.

NVC includes the areas of Kinesics (body language), Haptics (touch), Proxemics (distance), eye contact (oculesics), and Paralinguistics or Paralanguage (what you say and how you say it), etc.  In order to understand NVC, it is vital that both the verbal and non verbal language are congruent: They reinforce each other instead of contradicting the other channel of communication.

If you want to know more about NVC invest time investigating the most up-to-date scientific research available from professional sites such as Plosone, Medscape, Researchgate, Society for Neuroscience, Psychological Science Journal and many others.

Always remember that NVC is context-based and can change radically from culture to culture. It can be influenced by many other factors such as; the actual situation; expectations; submission vs dominance; sex; age; experience; emotional state, possible consequences and so on.

  • Key Points to remember:
    NVC SHOULD NOT BE INTERPRETED by focussing on only one single, isolated element!
  • It is vital to identify and understand as many of the key components as possible and the interaction and relationship between them.
  • It is easier to read the NVC elements when the person is standing in full view without anything in front of them that is blocking the view of the body & extremeties.
  • People’s NVC is constantly changing so it is not advisable to analyse just a short segment and assume that the result can be applied to the whole communication.
  • Visual acuity is the key to success in this activity. Basically, Observe and Link!
  • NOTE: There are always both Macro and Micro elements in every component which is why Visual acuity is so important.

Bruce Cluster-EmblemsEmblems vs Clusters.
Emblems are single individual elements of NVC such as the head, eyes, mouth, arms, hands and feet (see indicated emblems in the graphic above). One example of this would be the interpretation (in isolation) that crossed-arms means that the person is defensive or negative – However, there are at least EIGHT different interpretations of this emblem based on additional Non Verbal indicators and elements such as context, place, perceived role, dominance / subordination, intention, etc..

Try the following experiment for yourself….

Cross your arms as you normally would. Then focus on whether performing this action actually makes you feel threatened or negative.

I would propose that you do not feel this way and, in fact you might even find it comfortable!

Emblems are also viewed as part of a group known as “Digital Markers” by professional Ericksonian hypnotists. They are an excellent way of helping to ensure that your message passes through the brain’s mental barrier (also known as the ·Critical Factor”) so that it is properly processed by higher level cognitive elements in the recipient’s brain.

I repeat…Just focussing on isolated or individual Emblems alone can cause serious misunderstandings and it is recommended that they should always be considered as an integral part of the complete Cluster being used at the same time.

Clusters are actually the key to successfully reading NVC. They are a collection of signals that, when considered together, provide a much more reliable basis for interpretation.

Clusters incorporate the following 5 main areas:

• Posture: This involves both seated and standing positions. When you are standing your body tends to produce more testosterone and adrenalin and less cortisol which apparently tends to make you more positive and confident. When seated, the testosterone and adrenaline seeems to tend to go down while the cortisol goes up, this often result in making you less persuasive to others. Being seated also affects the effective use of other elements such as gestures, which generally need to be higher then when standing.

• Orientation: This involves where your actual body mass in directed – towards or away from the audience or the people being spoken to, or in another direction such astowards  a screen during a presentation. Orientation facilitates and drives engagement or disengagement in any communicative activity. In a presentation, if you are continually turning your back on the audience, they will often disengage from the communication and tend to start looking at their phones, sending Whatsapp messages or doing anything that is more engaging than your disengagement from them.

• Proximity: This deals with how close or far away from the audience the speaker is. If we are far away or close to them. This includes: intimate space; personal space; social space, and public space. Many countries and cultures have different norms governing what the appropriate distances are. Our bodies often tend to betray us subconsciously when we are in a communicative activity. A common problem is that of the speaker moving into the audience’s territory! Generally, we tend to have subconscious expectations about where we will be in relation to the other participants in the communicative activity.

• Gaze: Where, how and when we are looking at the audience. In any group of people, it is usual to find people who the Decision-makers. They are usually the boss, managers, or senior staff. The are often called the “Power(s)”. Another group, known as “Influences” are people that the Powers listen to, consult and look to for guidance. The last group are sometime referred to as “Hot Bodies”. Their role is to be recipients of the message and they usually have little or no say in the decision-making process. There are certain moments to look at the Power, then change you gaze to the Influences and finally to the “hot bodies”.

• Gestures: These are a key subset of Body Language and specifically covers the areas of movements made by the body to reinforce or substitute spoken language. This includes elements such as gestures with the hands, foot placement / orientation, and so on. One examples is the following: for many thousands of years, we have looked at the hands of people approaching us to make sure that they are not holding an actual or potential weapon that could hurt or kill us. This means that hands must always be in plain sight and above the waist when you wish to have effective communication. Remember, there is a vast range of gestures that can be made by the human body so one must focus on the complete cluster to get the rest of the required information necessary to reach a valid interpretation.

caveman hands

Gaze, orientation, gestures, proximity and posture

To close, it is vital that any analysis of NVC is done properly to ensure that a valid and correct result is obtained.

I hope you have found this article to be constructive and useful.

All constructive feedback would be appreciated.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via LinkedIn.

© Ian Brownlee, M.Ed(TEO), M.Ed(T&D) MNLP, MTNLP.
Madrid, Spain, December, 2019.

Partial Bibliography:

Alibali, M. W., Kita, S., and Young, A. J. Gesture and the process of speech production: we think, therefore we gesture. Lang. Cogn. Process. 15, 593–613, (2000).
L Arnold., Dialogic Embodied Action: Using Gesture to Organize Sequence and Participation in Instructional Interaction. Research on Language & Social Interaction 45:3, pages 269-296. (2012)
N. Bianchi-Berthouze, P. Cairns, A. Cox, C Jennett, and W.W. Kim: On posture as a modality for expressing and recognizing emotions, UCLIC, University College London,
Carr, E. W., Winkielman, P., Oveis, C.. Transforming the mirror: Power fundamentally changes facial responding to emotional expressions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 997-1003 (2014)
Chu, M., and Kita, S., The nature of gestures’ beneficial role in spatial problem solving. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 140, 102–115. (2011).
de Gelder, B. Towards the neurobiology of emotional body language. Nat Rev Neurosci 7, 242–249 (2006)
I. UKO, Verbal and Non-verbal Communication, I Uko – An Encyclopedia of the Art, (2006).
R Pally, A primary role for nonverbal communication in psychoanalysis – Psychoanalytic Inquiry, – Taylor & Francis (2001)
Talley, L. and Temple, S., “How leaders influence followers through the use of nonverbal communication”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 36 No. 1, pp. 69-80.(2015)
E. R. Tenney, Nathan L. Meikle, and D. Hunsaker, D. A. Moore & Cameron Anderson Is Overconfidence a Social Liability? The Effect of Verbal versus Nonverbal Expressions of Confidence, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Weick, M., McCall, C., & Blascovich, J.. Power Moves Beyond Complementarity: A Staring Look Elicits Avoidance in Low Power Perceivers and Approach in High Power Perceivers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(8), 1188–1201. (2017)


About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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