8 types of non-verbal communication skills: how to develop them for more effective interactions

8 types of non-verbal communication skills: how to develop them for more effective interactions
JobStreet content teamupdated on 27 July, 2023

Where words fall short, nonverbal communication fills in the gaps. In the workplace, understanding and mastering nonverbal communication skills are crucial. They can improve your connection with colleagues and share your ideas.

Let's discover the power of nonverbal communication. Read on to learn the practical ways to develop them for career advancement.

What is nonverbal communication?

Smiling woman with non verbal communication: in front of laptop and maintaining eye contact

Nonverbal communication uses non-linguistic cues and signals to convey meaning and emotions. Intentional or not, nonverbal cues play a significant role in interactions. They often express feelings and attitudes that words alone cannot.

Malaysians bring their unique set of nonverbal cues and gestures into the workplace. Take for examplesalam, the traditional bowing gesture that shows respect towards superiors. Hand gestures and body posture also express thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Why is nonverbal communication so important?

Happy man at laptop speaking on phone

Nonverbal communication skills are valuable transferable skills. They build strong relationships, providing important context for verbal messages. Developing these skills lead to better outcomes in both personal and professional settings.

Nonverbal communication can either enhance or detract from a person's message. It can carry between 65% to 93% more impact than the actual words spoken! So, it's important to be aware of your cues and how they may be interpreted. Positive nonverbal communication can build rapport, while negative signals can create tension.

Here are other reasons why nonverbal communication is important especially in the workplace:

  • It can complement a verbal message. For example, a pat on the back or a handshake with a verbal "Congratulations!" or "Well done!"
  • It can reinforce your spoken words, making them clearer and more understandable. For example, you can nod your head repeatedly while saying, "Yes, that's exactly what I mean."
  • It can replace or substitute for a verbal message. For example, laughter and a high-five instead of saying, "Yes, we did it!" This can be useful in situations where you can't talk loudly or you can't be heard clearly because of noise.
  • It can strengthen your relationships with your colleagues and superiors. If you show positive nonverbal communication skills, you can have excellent rapport with them. Your nonverbal signals, body language, and facial expressions are all crucial in any setting.
  • It can prompt the beginning or the end of a conversation, meeting, or presentation. For example, a nonverbal cue like waving goodbye while saying thank you at the end of an online meeting.

Nonverbal communication is essential because it can convey emotions, thoughts, and information -- sometimes, even when you don't speak a single word.

The role of nonverbal communication in our lives

Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in our daily lives. Studies have shown that up to 93% of all communication is nonverbal. This means that most information we relay to others is through nonverbal cues. Sometimes, nonverbal cues can even contradict our spoken words.

Nonverbal communication at home

Nonverbal body language plays a significant role in how we communicate. It accounts for as much as 55% of what we convey. In comparison, our voice and tone make up 38%. Meanwhile, the actual words we say only account for 7% of the meaning conveyed.

Family members reflect the level of intimacy and closeness through their nonverbal cues. Some families are comfortable with hugging and kissing. But some Malaysian households consider avoiding direct eye contact with elders as a sign of respect.

Different families share distinct cultural differences and standards. So, the interpretation of nonverbal cues may vary. Regardless, you must be aware of and respect the norms of the community you interact with. Adapting your nonverbal communication can help establish rapport. It also shows respect and builds positive relationships.

Nonverbal communication at work

In the workplace, nonverbal communication is crucial for collaboration and team building. Think of making eye contact, nodding, and using open body language during a meeting. These can signal engagement and support for colleagues. Meanwhile, avoiding eye contact, slouching, and frowning can signal disinterest and negativity.

Working in a profession that involves interacting with others? Then nonverbal communication can be even more crucial. Sales professionals use nonverbal cues to establish rapport with potential customers. Teachers use nonverbal cues to create an engaging learning environment.

In service-oriented professions, nonverbal communication helps create positive interactions with customers. So, air stewardesses, retail service, and tourism service workers crucially need these.

That said, nonverbal communication skills are important for employees at all levels. From entry-level to executive, having these increases trust and improved collaboration. They contribute to better job performance and success in the workplace.

Nonverbal communication in social settings

Imagine attending a networking event hoping to meet potential business partners or clients. Will you be the person standing in a corner, hiding behind a drink? Or will you engage with others to make a good impression?

Nonverbal cues like a firm handshake, direct eye contact, and open body language can signal professionalism. Proper nonverbal communication can help you make positive connections and form lasting relationships.

It's important to understand the cultural norms around physical contact. In Malaysia, a handshake is a common greeting across all ethnicities. But, physical contact between men and women may not be permitted in all circumstances.

If you're greeting a Malaysian woman, wait and see if she extends her hand first before offering to shake. When greeting a Malay woman or an older person, it's appropriate to nod or give a slight bow as a sign of respect. Some people may put one hand over their chest and give a slight nod. This acts as a greeting to those they perceive as unaccustomed to being touched. Be mindful of these cultural norms. Then, you can show respect and build positive relationships with people in Malaysia.

Types of nonverbal communication

Woman talking on phone, using expressive hand gestures

1. Facial expressions

Interacting with people of different ages, cultures, or genders? Facial expressions are a universal language everyone understands. Facial muscles move in various ways to show emotions, attitudes, and intentions. Smiling means happiness or friendliness while frowning shows sadness or disapproval.

Part of facial expressions is brief and subtle microexpressions. These occur in a fraction of a second. Having a “resting b**** face” ( RBF ) can make you appear uninterested. So, try smiling a little to seem more approachable. Pay attention to your facial expressions to communicate better and connect with others.

2. Body language

Body language is a subtle yet powerful form of nonverbal communication. It involves gestures, postures, and body movements. It can provide insight into a person's thoughts and emotions. You're seen as warm, confident, and receptive if you have open and relaxed body language. But if you have tense or guarded body language, you might be uncomfortable, anxious, or hostile.

In professional settings, body language is crucial to making a positive first impression. Good body language in job interviews show confidence. Plus, it can affect your own emotions and mood. Standing tall and fixing your posture can boost your confidence and positive thinking.

Body language can also enhance verbal communication. Using hand gestures to emphasise a point or nodding to show agreement. Develop awareness of your body language and understand how to interpret others. Doing so will improve your communication and understanding.

3. Eye contact

Eye contact is a powerful way to communicate. It shows interest, attention, and sincerity. It helps build trust and establish rapport with others. Maintaining eye contact shows your interest in what the other person is saying.

Remember that the meaning of eye contact can vary based on the context and culture. In some cultures, sustained eye contact is seen as respectful, while in others, it may be viewed as rude. Recognising these differences is crucial in cross-cultural communication and can prevent misunderstandings.

Eye contact is critical in a professional setting, particularly in business meetings. Regular, steady eye contact can signify confidence, respect, and professionalism. But, avoiding eye contact can show disinterest or lack of confidence. Meanwhile, too much eye contact can seem confrontational or aggressive. Eye contact can also reveal whether someone is telling the truth. This is critical in high-stakes conversations or business negotiations.

4. Proxemics

To communicate efficiently, you must understand proxemics or how people use space. Personal space, the area around a person they consider their own, is a crucial aspect of proxemics. The distance we maintain from others can convey different meanings like intimacy, dominance, or respect.

Personal space varies based on the relationship and setting. People usually stand closer to relatives and farther from strangers. For casual conversations, a suitable distance ranges from 18 inches to four feet. Meanwhile, addressing a group of people requires around 10 to 12 feet.

5. Paralanguage

Paralanguage, also known as paralinguistics, refers to the nonverbal elements of speech. It involves the tone of voice, volume, pitch, and pace. Rhythm and cadence can also reveal emotional states. A faster pace indicates enthusiasm and a slower pace implies sadness or disappointment.

Being aware of vocal cues improves your communication skills. A trembling voice may state fear or nervousness. A flat tone may show boredom or disinterest. Vocal cues can also express politeness or disrespect. Think of a polite tone versus a harsh or condescending tone!

6. Appearance

How you dress and present yourself can communicate much about you. It displays your personality, social status, and cultural background. Dressing appropriately shows respect for the occasion and the people involved. In Malaysia, there are dress codes for specific settings, such as government offices and places of worship.

Malaysia is home to a large Muslim population. So, it is recommended to dress more conservatively. Men must avoid shorts and slippers, while women must avoid revealing dresses.

Your outfit's colour can also influence first impressions in job interviews. Wearing neutral colours is recommended in more traditional law, business, or banking jobs. Meanwhile, if you're interviewing for a creative field, you can show personality with a pop of colour.

Failing to follow dress codes can result in negative impressions and consequences. You might be denied entry to certain places — or even lose job opportunities!

7. Touch

Psychologist Harry Harlow conducted studies on the impact of touch on rhesus monkeys. He found that monkeys raised without physical contact from their mothers struggled with social interactions. This effect is not limited to monkeys but extends to humans as well.

Touch or haptic communication can express emotions like affection, familiarity, and sympathy. It can even influence a person's physical and emotional well-being. It affects heart rate, hormone levels, and the immune system. This is evident in giving or receiving hugs and even holding a person's hands or linking arms.

8. Objects and images

Images and objects have become a prevalent form of nonverbal communication. Emojis, GIFs, memes, and other visual media convey emotions, reactions, and ideas online. Using emojis or memes to communicate with colleagues can be fun. It even builds relationships. But, it's important to use them cautiously and keep things professional. Also, remember to avoid culturally sensitive objects and images. It's disrespectful to use the Malaysian flag as a decorative item. Treat images of religious figures, such as the Prophet Muhammad or Buddha, with reverence.

Before using emojis or memes, make sure you understand the company culture. Some workplaces may have a more traditional culture where informal communication isn't recommended. Unsure whether an emoji or meme is appropriate? It's better to err on the side of caution and avoid using it altogether.

How to improve nonverbal communication skills

Two women in front of laptop, one sipping a drink, using nonverbal communication

Want to express yourself more precisely? Consider the following tips to improve your nonverbal communication skills and behaviours.

1. Build self-awareness

The first key step is being conscious of your own nonverbal communication habits. To develop this self-awareness, you must pay attention to your communication style. Identify any patterns or tendencies that may hinder your ability to communicate well.

Practise your non-verbal communication skills in different settings, such as social situations, workplace, or public speaking engagements. This can help you become more comfortable and confident using non-verbal cues.

By building self-awareness and implementing nonverbal communication strategies, you can become a more effective communicator and make stronger connections with others.

2. Practise active listening

Active listening is essential to productive communication, and nonverbal cues play a significant role. Nonverbal cues help demonstrate that you are fully present and engaged in the conversation. Most good listeners practise nonverbal cues, sometimes unintentionally, because they are genuinely interested in the other party. They typically lean forward, nod, maintain eye contact, and smile.

Other than exhibiting nonverbal cues, practise active listening by avoiding interrupting the speaker. Refrain from multitasking during the conversation. Checking your phone or glancing around the room can be distracting and disrespectful.

Another technique for active listening is confirming your understanding with the speaker. Ask questions! By doing this, you can also clarify any misunderstandings and ensure that you are both on the same page.

3. Observe other people

Study other people's nonverbal communication skills. Observe their facial expressions and body language. Look at their gestures and appearance.

4. Think before you act

Think carefully before you do anything, especially when you're upset or unsure of your thoughts and feelings.

5. Beware of giving mixed signals

Look out for contradictions in your nonverbal communication. Make sure your nonverbal actions and signals match your spoken words. Your nonverbal signals and messages shouldn't conflict with your verbal messages.

6. Develop emotional awareness

Be aware of your own and other people's emotions. Understand how your emotions affect your nonverbal behaviour. Try to read the true feelings or thoughts behind others' nonverbal messages. This will help you respond to them in more meaningful ways.

7. Seek feedback

Feedback from others can provide insight into how your nonverbal cues are perceived. By seeking and applying feedback, you can continuously improve your nonverbal communication skills and become a more compelling communicator.

Ask for feedback from a trusted colleague, friend, or mentor by having them observe your nonverbal communication during a conversation. Be specific if you can. Let them know the areas you want to improve on. Are you working on smiling more during talking? Do you need to get used to maintaining eye contact?

While receiving feedback, remember to keep an open mind. Staying receptive to constructive criticism is the only way you can grow. Avoid becoming defensive or dismissive; ask questions to clarify the feedback and better understand how to improve.

8. Consider the context of the situation

Recognising the context of a situation is crucial for beneficial communication. If a situation calls for formality, it'll be inappropriate to exhibit casual behaviour, no matter how friendly you try to be. The same goes vice versa: Would you be comfortable if your best friend started using honorifics with you?

9. Address underlying conditions

Bear in mind that stress or other negative emotions can affect your nonverbal cues. So if you're overwhelmed or burnt out, be wary of the messages you may be sending. Better yet, address your emotions before reaching out to others.

Being aware of your emotions can help you process them. For instance, using relaxation techniques before an anxiety-inducing presentation can help you avoid pouring out discomfort into your audience. It also helps to identify your triggers to address your emotions immediately.


To improve your nonverbal communication, you must consider several nonverbal elements. Appearance, facial expressions, gestures, body movements, and other nonverbal cues. Make sure your actions match or complement your spoken words and actual intentions. Study all the nonverbal communication skills listed in this guide. Lastly, combine your knowledge, emotional awareness, and honing of skills with sincerity and honesty.

Remember, it takes a lifetime to master nonverbal communication skills. As the world evolves, communication and interaction methods also change over time. Your ways of expression also adapt to your changing environment. But what remains is the importance of nonverbal communication skills in various aspects of your life, from building and nurturing valuable relationships to improving your professional and personal lives.

Upgrade your nonverbal communication skills and improve your chances of landing your ideal job and impressing potential employers. Keep your JobStreet profile updated with your latest experiences and abilities. Check out the Career Advice page for valuable tips and insights to help you in your job search. Download the JobStreet app for iOS or Android to find better job opportunities with ease.


  1. Can nonverbal communication skills be learned, or are they innate?
    Some people may be born with nonverbal communication skills, or the aptitude to read and express nonverbal cues. But, nonverbal communication can also be learned and improved with enough practice.
  2. How important is nonverbal communication in comparison to verbal communication?
    Both are important, but nonverbal communication typically conveys more than verbal communication. It either supports or contradicts words by providing context and meaning.
  3. Are there universal nonverbal communication cues?
    Yes. Many cultures share particular nonverbal cues. For example, smiling always expresses happiness; frowning mostly denotes disappointment. These universal nonverbal cues allow people from diverse cultures to understand one another despite language barriers.
  4. How can I improve my nonverbal communication skills in virtual settings?
    Nonverbal communication is significant in virtual settings. Body language and facial expressions can be more prominent on camera. Connect with your audience by making eye contact with the camera. Although you can only show a two-dimension version of yourself, you can still use appropriate gestures. Emphasise facial expressions to enhance your message.
  5. How can I tell if someone is lying based on their nonverbal cues?
    Some nonverbal cues show dishonesty, like avoiding eye contact and fidgeting. But, you must not rely on these cues to detect if someone is lying. Other factors, such as anxiety or unease, can influence a person's behaviour.
  6. How can I improve my ability to read other people's nonverbal cues?
    Practise nonverbal communication techniques, such as active listening and building self-awareness. Doing so improves your ability to read other people's nonverbal cues. It also enhances your communication skills.
  7. How can I become more aware of nonverbal cues during a conversation?
    During a conversation, practise active self-awareness by monitoring your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. You can also ask for feedback from others to understand better how you come across nonverbally.
  8. What is the role of nonverbal communication in building rapport and trust?Nonverbal communication plays a crucial role in building rapport and trust. Positive nonverbal cues can help create a connection and warmth between people. So smile, make eye contact, and use open body language.
  9. How can non-verbal communication skills help in conflict resolution?
    Effective nonverbal communication skills help to de-escalate conflicts. They convey a sense of empathy, understanding, and respect. Nonverbal cues like nodding and using a calm voice can help diffuse tense situations.
  10. Do any specific nonverbal cues indicate interest or disinterest in a conversation?
    Some nonverbal cues state interest in a conversation. These include making eye contact, leaning in, and nodding. Meanwhile, looking away or frowning may show disinterest. Consider these cues within the context of the conversation and the individual's behaviour.

Browse top search terms

Did you know many candidates preparing a resume also research their industry by exploring top search terms?
Did you find this helpful?

Subscribe to Career Advice

Get expert career advice delivered to your inbox.
You can cancel emails at any time. By clicking ‘subscribe’ you agree to JobStreet’s Privacy Statement.