Importance of verbal & nonverbal communication

Updated April 17, 2017

Communication is present in every aspect of our lives, affecting the relationships we have with others and ultimately influencing the way we experience our lives. The authors of "Communication Counts: Getting It Right in College and Life" define human communication as "negotiating symbolic meaning." Adopting this meaning suggests that every communication event is an exchange of symbols, established by those utilising them, to convey meaning to others.

At the most basic level, two types of communication take place during the symbolic exchange: verbal and nonverbal communication. Heavily utilising symbols, these two types of communication are present throughout most communication exchanges, and play an important role in the human communication process.

Verbal Communication Definition

Verbal communication is the exchange of meaning through the use of language. Language is essentially the words used by an individual to express meaning and distinguish personal identity. As expressed by the authors of "Communication Counts," effective verbal communication involves negotiating life in a "world of words." Language varies based on culture and background of the individual, with specific subcultures and organisations creating unique languages.

Properties of Verbal Communication

Verbal communication operates under a specific set of properties that serve to distinguish the power of language in communication. Foremost, language is symbolic. Words in a language represent and stand for specific things, without actually being the "thing" represented. Related to the symbolic nature of language is the idea that language is arbitrary, meaning that the symbol is created and understood by those using the word. Every individual or culture creates and internalises meaning for the words used during communication, leaving the meaning to the user, not to the symbol. Another property of language is the abstract nature of words. Whereas some words are very clear in an organisation, others are open to interpretation and can potentially confuse meaning between users. Often, words assigned to concepts and ideas such as "freedom" are more abstract and open to meaning.

Nonverbal Communication Definition

Nonverbal communication is directly related to verbal communication, in that it utilises symbols to create and negotiate meaning, although nonverbal communication is negotiating symbolic meaning without the use of words. The authors of "Communication Counts" refine the definition further to explain nonverbal communication as "vocal or non-oral messages not expressed linguistically."

Beyond the basic definition of nonverbal communication, three specific functions are served by the use of non-word symbols. Nonverbal communication is used to modify verbal communication, as it can add to the verbal message being conveyed, complementing or even contradicting the message. Nonverbal communication expresses the feelings of the individual, indicating the amount of like or dislike toward others, understanding of power in the communication exchange, and the amount of awareness towards the communication exchange. Finally, nonverbal communication serves to regulate the communication exchange, providing cues to each member regarding whose "turn" it is during communication. Eye contact, vocal variances and gestures all serve to regulate the back-and-forth nature of communication.

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication involves a number of different symbolic exchanges. Basic body movement, such as gestures, facial expressions and touch all express meaning and relationship during communication. Appearance, present through the physical characteristics of individuals, the clothing they wear and the accessories they adorn themselves with all express meaning and affect communication.

Nonverbal communication does not only involve the movement and appearance of the communicator. Vocalised variances, such as the volume and pitch of verbal communication, paired with the use of vocal disfluencies such as "um" and "uh," express meaning and change the symbolic exchange. Finally, nonverbal communication can involve the use of time and space. Punctuality and the way that individuals organise their use of time communicate a great deal of information regarding priorities. The use of space, also referred to as proxemics, is most prevalently used to nonverbally communicate meaning when organising a location. The layout of artefacts, the colour of the environment, lighting used and other aspects of an enviroment communicate the purpose of a location, who is allowed in the location and how interactions should take place within the location.


Verbal and nonverbal communication are required for human communication. Both types of communication exist primarily on the concept of symbolic communication, and cannot be fully understood without considering the other. Language in communication is extremely powerful, as words can be used to shape culture, create meaning, classify individuals, and both clarify and confuse symbolic meaning. Nonverbal communication, beyond its influence over verbal communication, is often the first type of communication expressed during a communication exchange. People begin to formulate understandings and opinions of others before they even hear them speak, and nonverbal communication expresses the information during early phases of interaction. Verbal and nonverbal communication are directly related, and understanding the power each style exerts over the entire communication process is key to effectively developing and executing quality communication strategies.

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About the Author

Ross Lane began writing in 2009 with work published on the website GameObserver. He is a communication instructor at Boise State University and he received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in communication and journalism from Boise State.