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Nonverbal communication: understanding the unspoken

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching 3rd Edition PDF by James Gavin & Madeleine Mcbrearty.

The ICF core competency of active listening encompasses both what is and is not said. According to Mezirow (2000), effective communication "requires that we assess the meanings behind the words; the coherence, truth, and appropriateness of what is being communicated; the truthfulness and qualifications of the speaker; and the authenticity of expressions of feeling" (p. 9). Of course, what is not said might simply be at the clients’ unconscious level, or there may be particular aspects of their story that they deliberately conceal. Unveiling what is not openly spoken relies on messages that are transmitted nonverbally.

Nonverbal communication holds a prominent place in coaching. It has been formally defined as "communication effected by means other than words" (Knapp, Hall, & Horgan, 2014, p. 8). Early research in this area estimated that behavior conveys from 65% to 93% of the meaning of a message (Birdwhistell, 1970; Mehrabian, 1972, 1981). Based on his research, Mehrabian proposed a formula of 55:38:7, representing the proposition that 55% of a communication comes from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and only 7% from the actual words. Indeed, before client and coach exchange their first words, nonverbal communication may have fed judgments and impressions. In some cultures, nonverbal messages are thought to outweigh the significance of verbal content (Sue & Sue, 2013). Another important feature of nonverbal messaging is that it operates at a more unconscious level than verbal remarks.

As a coach, increased awareness of and sensitivity to nonverbal communications is crucial. You may notice various nonverbal expressions and interpret their meanings. These working hypotheses about meanings can be verified either through direct questioning or further observation. In the early stages of the coaching relationship, you may choose simply to remain alert to nonverbal cues. As the relationship develops, you may be able to discuss hunches developed from clients’ nonverbal behaviors and thereby add depth to the coaching experience. In most cases, it is best to tread lightly when interpreting nonverbal messages, avoiding strong attachment to the meanings you attribute to them.

Five dimensions pertaining to the nonverbal domain have been identified: kinesics, paralinguistics, proxemics, environmental factors, and time (Cormier, Nurius, & Osborn, 2017). Let’s see how these dimensions can guide our appreciation of clients’ messages.


Kinesics refers to body motions and includes eye movements, facial expressions, gestures, posture, body movements, and touch (Cormier et al., 2017). According to some experts (Birdwhistell, 1970), kinesics may also include unchanging aspects of the body, such as height, weight, and physical appearance. In isolation, a single observation of kinesics may have limited value. Over time, however, patterns that seem correlated with certain subject matter or emotional content may emerge. Knowing what is being communicated in these moments will greatly enhance your ability to be of service. Kinesics provides additional clues to the meaning of a person’s verbal messages. Just as the same word can have more than one meaning, so too do nonverbal gestures vary in significance according to context (e.g., smiling at a wedding or a funeral). Though research on kinesics provides general ideas for extracting meaning, there is always a risk of overinterpreting or misinterpreting body movements. Let’s consider some selected areas of focus concerning body messaging.

Eye Movements

Much of what we sense about another person comes from the eyes. The way people’s eyes appear when we engage in conversation offers hints about their inner states. Do they look at you when speaking? Is there deeper meaning in someone’s raised eyebrows or furrowed brow? Does the person blink often, or is his gaze more of a stare? Being aware of subtle eye movements provides clues about how best to respond to client needs.

If the person easily reciprocates your attentive eye contact throughout the coaching conversation, it would make sense to interpret this as an expression of interest and interpersonal comfort. However, when a client shifts her eyes from side to side or looks down rather than directly at you, she is not necessarily conveying avoidance or disinterest. In some instances, this could reflect cultural norms; for example, lowering the eyes while speaking may be a way that members of certain cultural groups show respect and deference in conversations. Although many white North Americans might equate eye contact with listening, people from other cultures may interpret eye contact as bold and confronting (Knapp et al., 2014; Sue & Sue, 2013).

Communication experts in the area of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) (Andreas & Faulkner, 1996; Bandler & Grinder, 1979, 2005; Grinder & Bandler, 1976) argue that eye movements correspond to neural thought processing (see figure 7.1). They suggest that whether a speaker’s eyes move up, down, or side to side can explain how information is being processed and what types of internal experiences the person may be having.

For instance, when a person’s eyes move on a horizontal level from side to side, NLP theory suggests that she is accessing verbal information. A movement that is horizontal and to her left indicates she is trying to remember the words of past conversations, while one that is horizontal and to her right means she is constructing new sentences in her head. Eye movements up and to one side or the other mean she is either accessing visual images from the past (to her left) or creating new images in the moment (to her right). Eye movements down and to one side or the other reflect either an internal dialogue in which she is talking to herself (to her left) or the experience of a significant emotion, such as joy or sadness (to her right).

A straightforward implication of this theory is simply that clients may move their eyes to access internal information. For instance, if you ask someone to imagine himself doing a sport, he may create a visual image (eyes up and to his right) or remember a time when he participated in this activity (eyes up and to his left). In either case, NLP would argue that this person’s eye movements parallel the information he is accessing.

Figure 7.1 Neurolinguistic programming.
Figure 7.1 Neurolinguistic programming.

Facial Expressions

Scientific studies of facial expressions and emotion (Cohn & Ekman, 2008; Ekman, 1993) have confirmed much of what you may intuitively sense when looking at another person. Although the face is something that people usually learn to control, in unguarded moments all of us may reveal more than we want. It would appear that specific facial areas tend to convey specific emotions. You can usually see anger in the brows and lower face, for instance, while fear appears in the eyes. The mouth and jaw tend to display surprise, happiness, and disgust. For the most part, cultural differences are not thought to influence basic emotional responses shown in the face.

When a client is not speaking, the expressions of the lips and mouth may communicate a great deal. A person who is tight-lipped may be conveying experiences of control, anger, frustration, or repression. Biting the lips may express tension, and when the edges of someone’s mouth turn down, you might be witnessing sadness or disappointment (Ekman & Rosenberg, 2005).


What does it mean when someone tilts her head or plays with her hair? Although playing with one’s hair has been linked to nervousness (Woods, Miltenberger, & Flach, 1996), some believe that angling one’s head to the side suggests a questioning or doubting attitude about the matter in discussion - or it could simply indicate that the client has a hearing impairment (Fast, 2002). A rigidly held head can reflect anger or tension, whereas hanging one’s head down may imply disappointment or sadness. It is a convention in Western culture that nodding one’s head up and down displays agreement or compliance and shaking the head from side to side means disagreement. Interestingly, people often make these movements without awareness.