What Is Nonverbal Communication And Why Is It Important?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 6, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Body language is often considered when communicating with another person. However, people may not discuss how nonverbal communication works, as it might feel like second nature. You may have heard that only 7% of communication is verbal. While this “rule” has largely been disproven, nonverbal communication skills are often essential to social connection and understanding. Additionally, some communities, such as the deaf or hard-of-hearing community, tend to use nonverbal communication types more often than others do.

Nonverbal cues tend to go beyond tone of voice and include facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact, which can play a significant role in interpersonal relationships and help convey information without words. Understanding your subconscious nonverbal behaviors may offer insight into how others view you. When used intentionally, reading body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal signals can be valuable and rewarding tools for improving communication skills and learning how to convey information effectively in various cultural contexts, including Western cultures.

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What is nonverbal communication?

Nonverbal communication is the way that people communicate without using words. It may include body posture, eye contact, physical touch, sign language, or other forms of communicating without verbal language. 


How you hold your body, sit, lie down, or stand may communicate meaning to other people. For example, if you are interested in a conversation, you may lean in toward the person talking. Reclining back in a chair or crossing your legs might show you are comfortable and relaxed. If you are fidgeting and restless, it could indicate negative emotions such as nervousness, impatience, or difficulty sitting still.

Nonverbal communication examples like aggressive posture might include standing close to another person, invading their personal space without consent, rapid arm movements when angry, or walking hurriedly toward another person with an angry expression. Your person's body language might also communicate attraction, sadness, or illness. For example, you might hunch over or lower your head when you are ill, conveying physical characteristics associated with other negative emotions. Understanding these types of nonverbal communication can help enhance our interactions with others and effectively convey our feelings within the context of physical space. 

Eye contact

In some cases, eye contact may be perceived as a non verbal communication indicator. For example, if you are actively listening to someone, you might make eye contact to signal you’re paying attention. On the other hand, holding eye contact for an extended period might make someone feel uncomfortable.

Some individuals struggle with eye contact, such as those on the autism spectrum. However, studies on adults with autism show that when an autistic person makes eye contact, the processing centers of their brain deactivate, indicating that eye contact may not signify listening skills for everyone. Autistic adults and children may listen better and feel more comfortable not making eye contact. This demonstrates the importance of understanding both verbal communication and nonverbal communications in various contexts, as people may express their engagement and understanding differently beyond spoken words. 

Facial expressions 

There are many ways that your facial expressions may communicate the emotions you feel to the people around you. Smiling can let people know that you are happy or friendly. Frowning often communicates that you are sad, irritated, or concerned. Furrowing your eyebrows can make you look angry or focused. 

Often, facial expressions may be misinterpreted. In these cases, verbal language might be a tool to explain what one is feeling without assumptions. 


The hand gestures that you make may add to a conversation, allowing you to communicate with someone without having to speak out loud. For example, you might point at something to indicate importance or gesture to increase the importance of a statement you’re making. 

When using American Sign Language (ASL), the way you gesture may communicate the emotion that goes along with the words you are signing. You might gesture more hurriedly if you’re stressed or out of time or slowly if you’re trying to make an essential point. 

Personal space

The amount of space you leave between you and someone else may also communicate your feelings. When two people sit very closely together with little space between them, it can show that they are in a close relationship. Alternately, if a person purposefully puts a lot of space between them and someone else, they might feel uncomfortable with physical closeness, or wish to end the conversation. 


Physical touch can communicate several emotions. You might show compassion and empathy for someone by hugging them when they are sad. You may give a high-five to someone to show that you support them and are celebrating with them. Or you might tap someone on the shoulder to get their attention if they are turned away from you. 

Touch can be harmful, as well. For example, people might try to hug or kiss someone without consent. In some cases, physical touch can be used out of anger, such as punching, hitting, or kicking. These behaviors are abusive. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788. You can also use the online chat.  

Assistive technology

Assistive technology is sometimes used to make verbal speech without actually speaking. Some individuals, including individuals living with autism and those with a mental or physical condition affecting speech, may experience selective or uncontrollable mutism. 

An app, or assistive device, may speak for these individuals by reading the words typed on a screen or selected through image queues out loud. In some cases, the technology may come with an eye tracker that allows individuals with paralysis to converse by looking at the words or letters they want to say. Although the words are spoken verbally, they are spoken by a machine prompted by the individual instead of by voice.  

Sign language

American Sign Language involves hand gestures and movements, sometimes accompanied by lip movements or verbal speech. Often, those who utilize ASL are deaf or hard of hearing. However, not everyone that uses it is. Those who experience mutism may also use ASL. 

ASL is a fully formed language that can communicate as much as verbal language. This language may be the only language used by some people. Each country may have its own form of sign language.

Cultural differences 

In different cultures, nonverbal communication can have varying connotations. For example, sitting close to someone in one culture may indicate attraction, while in other cultures, it could be normal or preferred, including among strangers. Smiling can also be interpreted differently depending on the country you are in. While a smile is considered friendly and inviting in some places, other locations may consider it rude, inconsiderate, or threatening. 


Why is nonverbal communication important?

The importance of communication in a relationship is immeasurable. While communication is often verbal, nonverbal communication can support a verbal message or communicate what is going unsaid. Additionally, it may be the only form of communication for some individuals. 

It helps people understand what you’re saying

If you are saying something important and are using serious facial expressions and direct gestures, it may help someone know to listen carefully. Additionally, smiling and nodding your head approvingly may communicate friendliness and agreeableness, which can help you make a positive first impression at job interviews or with a new friend. 

It can show confidence

Body language may convey confidence, which is often considered attractive. You may portray confidence by keeping your shoulders back, your head up, and making eye contact with another person. Your body language could hide these emotions even if you feel scared or timid. 

It can help you make a positive first impression

It has been found that people may make their first impression of you in the first seven seconds after meeting you. You may not have been able to say anything verbally in those first seven seconds of meeting someone. For this reason, they might determine your trustworthiness through your body language. 

Learning to read nonverbal communication in others

When people are talking to you, you might try to look for nonverbal cues as you listen to see if their facial expressions communicate the same message as their words. It may help to pay attention to the position of their body as well as to their gestures. These nonverbal cues may help you understand their emotions or thoughts. 

Learning to read nonverbal communication may help you discern when another person may be trying to take advantage of you or lie. For example, they might have an off-putting posture while expressing an urge to connect. Trust your instincts. If something feels unsafe, it might be. 

How to improve nonverbal communication

Nonverbal communication is a skill you may learn and develop throughout your life. There are a few ways to improve this skill. 

Think about your physical reactions

Pay attention to your physical reaction as a result of your emotions. If you are stressed, you might not want to communicate that to the person with whom you’re talking. For example, if you’re at a job interview and aren’t feeling particularly happy, you might want to avoid slouching, holding your head down, or furrowing your brow. Instead, you could indicate confidence by:

  • Nodding your head

  • Sitting up straight

  • Smiling every so often

  • Laughing when possible 

  • Using hand gestures

Learning to recognize your natural physical responses may help you learn how to catch and correct them before communicating a message that you don’t want to communicate to others.

Get in touch with your emotions

Getting in touch with your emotions may help you control your nonverbal responses. It can be harder to choose what body language to use if you don’t know how you’re feeling, or feel that your body acts without your consent. 

The basic emotions include happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Learning how to recognize the signs of these emotions can help you learn how to control your nonverbal communication.

Practice in front of a mirror

If you haven’t thought about what you’re communicating through your body language, you may be unaware of the signals you send to other people. You may find it helpful to practice meaningful conversations in front of a mirror so you can see what you’re communicating nonverbally.

If this exercise feels unnatural, you might try recording a conversation with a friend to see how you interact with them. If you sit still, fidget often, or appear to be zoning out, it may indicate a chance to change your nonverbal cues. 

You can practice working through situations that happen to you regularly to watch your responses. This exercise can help you look for areas you may need to tweak to improve your communication efforts.

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Counseling to improve communication 

You may benefit from professional support if you’d like to learn more about nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is something that can be improved, both through self-reflection and the guidance of a counselor. Talking with a therapist may help you improve your verbal and nonverbal communication skills. They might also help you understand different types of nonverbal communication, which may help you discern how other people feel in certain situations.

If you are nervous about meeting a new counselor, consider online therapy. Online counseling allows you to meet from a safe location, such as your home. Additionally, depending on your preferences, you can meet with your therapist over video chat, phone call, or live chat. With virtual therapy through platforms like BetterHelp, video sessions may allow a therapist to observe your nonverbal communication. Many studies have shown that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy.


How you communicate with others, verbally and nonverbally, can play a significant role in the relationships in your life. If you are interested in learning more about nonverbal communication, consider speaking with a licensed counselor. You don’t have to experience a mental health condition to speak with a therapist, as counseling can be utilized as a tool for self-improvement. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed counselor who has experience helping people with nonverbal communication and other social skills. Take the first step toward improving your communication skills and contact BetterHelp today.

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