It’s not so much what you say, it’s how you say it: Awareness of nonverbal communication can provide a crucial edge wherever you interact
By Alicia Hugg, RN
February 4, 2002 Print this articleE-Mail this article You have just seven seconds to make that first impression, according to Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel and co-author of You Are the Message. Those seven seconds may or may not include spoken words, but they certainly include impressions from nonverbal communication.So how can you put this information to work for you? By becoming more aware of your own and others’ nonverbal behavior, you can help to improve your work environment and career mobility.Tomorrow, when you walk into your nursing unit, pretend you are there for a first interview. What are your first impressions about the people you work with every day? Is this a place where you can do your best work? Does the unit clerk greet you with a smile? Is your charge nurse accessible to her staff?Chances are that their body language will give you all the clues you need to size up the environment and more.Whether on a conscious or subconscious level, communication experts agree that most self-expression is conveyed through nonverbal messages.Social psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that 55 percent of a first impression is based on appearance (dress, grooming, body language, etc.), 38 percent on the way we sound (the tone and pitch of our voice, accent, etc.) and just 7 percent on what we have to say.Ask any nurse recruiter what they look for in job candidates and “excellent communication skills” will likely top the list. Most would agree that whether you get the job could hinge on your body language-a critically important aspect of how well you express yourself.Behavioral clues
Karen DeLavan, senior recruiting consultant for Texas Health Resources, looks to a candidate’s face for behavioral clues.”Are they scowling or smiling? Watching how a person behaves in the lobby when they don’t know you’re looking is one way to determine whether this is someone who is approachable to patients and their families,” she said. “I look for a nice open look.”Although DeLavan said she does not rely exclusively on nonverbal cues, they are a valuable part of her total assessment.Committed to fostering a positive hospital environment for new grads, DeLavan uses the interview process to measure their enthusiasm and excitement about the prospect of learning all they can by becoming a practicing nurse. For seasoned nurses, continuing excitement about the profession and their role also can give clues to their suitability for the position.As senior deputy director of nursing services at San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp, Calif., Occeletta Briggs, MA, RN, offers this advice: “Effective communicators are in demand for positions in all areas of nursing. In our hospital, we embrace the team concept in providing patient care, so nurses are expected to be good team players to meet the basic demands of the job.”Briggs also measures a candidate’s listening skills during interviews and whether what is verbalized matches their body language.”When one of my staff tells me that someone is not communicating with them, I tell them that is not possible,” she said. “People are always communicating on some level, and nonverbal is a communications mainstay. I also look at the distance one places between themselves and another when interacting.”National placement recruiter Joel Nevins, MA, agrees with the concept of honoring nonverbal cues. But as president of the Sebastian, Fla.-based AmeriNurse, Nevins initially interviews candidates by telephone. “As a result, telephone etiquette-and thus verbal cues-are most important at first,” Nevins said.Learning to communicate well on the telephone is also a requisite on the unit, when talking to patients, families and other health care professionals. With the volume and variety of calls received there, developing this skill is essential. The tone, inflection and volume of voice will influence the way a person receives any message.For example, a cheery tone of voice is welcomed and generally comes across as positive, while shouting or speaking rapidly can block communication.Nonverbal cues key
After the telephone interviews, Nevins said good recruiters will prepare candidates extensively for the in-person interview, during which nonverbal cues then become key to landing the job.Ashton Medina, MBA, RN, director of Medical Management Resource Group, an affiliate of Discharge Resource Group, a South San Francisco-based hiring firm, focuses on the face of a potential candidate during the interview process.”When I interview someone, I look on them as a client would. Are they on time, dressed appropriately, ready for work with appropriate tools, paper and pencil? Do they make eye contact and have a firm handshake? And, as corny as it may be, a smile sets the stage for pleasant interaction even if the information is less than pleasant.”As licensed professionals accustomed to demonstrating job performance skills, nurses do not hesitate to give themselves high marks when evaluating their own technical competencies.But we stop short when it comes to taking a critical look at our own communication style and body language.Body language is universal: We all speak it. Still, the importance of nonverbal behavior is often overlooked. One area where this frequently occurs is that of transcultural nursing. Paula LeVeck, Ph.D., RN, director of Wellness Works!, developed and teaches the transcultural nursing course at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock. The course stresses the importance of understanding customs that might differ from one’s own in order to provide better nursing care. Gestures acceptable in the United States, for example, may be offensive to those from other cultures.‘Contact culture’
Understanding “contact cultures” (people who interact at closer distances) and “noncontact cultures” may help nurses honor cultural distinctions while providing patient care.Cultural anthropologist Edward Hall identified Arabs, Latin Americans and southern Europeans as examples of contact cultures, while noncontact cultures include Asians, North Americans and northern Europeans.LeVeck finds that the best tool in helping students overcome barriers to effective communication is the opportunity to watch themselves on videotape. She was astonished when a friend pointed out her own distracting habit of sniffing at the end of sentences when she made an important point.”Be sensitive to what is going on around you,” said Carol Gunther, Ph.D., adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco College of Professional Studies.Gunther, who frequently teaches communication classes to nurses and other hospital staff, also suggests developing an awareness of your own communication style and use of body language to help identify your strong and weak points, as well as ways to develop or change them.Whether pursuing that dream job, or seeking harmony and fulfillment in an existing work setting, an awareness of both nonverbal and verbal messages will give you an edge wherever you interact, and may be just the key to jump-starting your career.
Contact Alicia Hugg at [email protected]
Illustration: Hal Pham
Ask any nurse recruiter what they look for in job candidates and “excellent communication skills” will likely top the list. Most would agree that whether you get the job could hinge on your body language-a critically important aspect of how well you express yourself. Reply to this article Types of nonverbal communication
Social scientists use the term paralanguage to describe a wide range of vocal characteristics, each of which helps express an attitude:pitch (high-low)
n range (spread-narrow)
dysfluencies (um, er, etc.)
pauses (frequency and duration)Appearance
As a rule, people who look attractive are considered to be more likable and persuasive, and generally have more successful careers.The face and eyes
The most important zone to “read” for emotions is the face.
We can pick up a smile from the length of a football field, about 300 feet.
Eye contact may be the best indicator of how involved a person is in a situation.
Visual contact is an invitation to speak.
People in the United States who avoid eye contact are sometimes seen as insincere or dishonest, and perceived as tentative or ill at ease.
Some people still hold to the old adage: “The eyes are the mirrors of the soul.”
The worldwide signal of friendliness and approval is a smile.The body
Posture. The way you sit at your desk when you are working can express something about your attitude toward your job or how hard you’re working to anyone who cares to look.
Fidgeting hands might betray nervousness, a tapping toe might indicate impatience and clenched fists or white knuckles might be a sign of restrained anger.~Alicia Hugg, RN
How to win ’em over
These tips on nonverbal communication come from Joel Nevins, president of The Nevin Group/ AmeriNurse, an RN recruitment service.Dress conservatively. Wear clean clothes (don’t forget to remove the dry-cleaning tags), and be sure your shoes are polished and your nails trimmed.
Avoid limp-noodle or death-grip handshakes when greeting an employer.
Maintain eye contact at all times-but, of course, don’t stare.
Sit forward and look interested. Some recruiters suggest sitting as the interviewer sits, unless they are slouching; in that case, they recommend that the candidate should sit forward and look interested.
Keep your hands on your lap. Refrain from gesticulating too much, as it distracts.
Try to avoid crossing your arms, as this is a defensive posture More Reading
These tips on nonverbal communication come from Joel Nevins, president of The Nevin Group/ AmeriNurse, an RN recruitment service.Communicating at work: Principles and Practices for Business and the Professions, 6th edition, by Ronald B. Adler (1998; McGraw-Hill Higher Education)Aguinis, H., Simonse, M. M., & Pierce, C.A. (1998). “Effects of nonverbal behavior on perceptions of power bases.” The Journal of Social Psychology, 138, 4.Burgoon, Judee K., Coker, D.A., & Coker, R.A. (1987). “Communicative effects of gaze behavior: A test of two contrasting explanations. “Human Communication Research, 12, 495-524.The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall (1966; Doubleday)