Nonverbal communication is information communicated without using words in the form of gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions and even the space people put between them while they talk. With every verbal message comes a nonverbal one that complements, contradicts or strengthens what's being said. Just as nonverbal messages can improve communication between people in every situation, the overall disadvantage of nonverbal signals is that they can also prevent effective communication.
The Power of Nonverbal Communication
Since a classic study by UCLA psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s, nonverbal communication has been defined by many as significantly more important than verbal. His research concluded that 93 per cent of communication is nonverbal, both intentional and unintentional. One disadvantage of the power of nonverbal communication is that it is hard to hide true feelings, even when a person is aware of how it works. Body language reflects how a person feels in any situation, even before he consciously knows he is feeling it. If he is feeling attacked, for example, he defends himself with crossed arms, crossed legs or even by moving behind an available barrier like a desk or a chair.
Unlike verbal communication which has a single channel of communication (words), nonverbal messages use many different channels such as body language, posture, touch and appearance. Each of these is a form of nonverbal communication but none of them is as clear as the spoken word, and the resulting ambiguity is a major disadvantage. Even when a person is aware of the nonverbal signals he is sending, he cannot be sure that the person listening understands them. Neither can he be completely aware of what meanings the other person is placing on messages he is unwittingly sending nonverbally.
First Impressions Do Count
People convey strong nonverbal messages during initial meetings and this communication takes many forms. The way a person listens, stands and reacts tells others much more about him than what he is saying, and while this can work to someone's advantage, the drawback is that people are largely unaware of the nonverbal messages they are sending and unintentionally make the wrong impression. Psychologists at the University of Texas and Sonoma State University concluded in a 2009 study that strong first impressions are formed from physical appearance alone and that people are judged immediately on their smiles, their stances and their clothes.
Understanding the strength and form of nonverbal messages is key to minimising the disadvantages and making the most of the advantages. During any interaction, if something feels uncomfortable then it's probably because the nonverbal cues are contradicting the verbal ones. If one person is feeling angry and threatened, for example, but his words are saying that he's happy, the disadvantage for him is that it's hard to hide the truth. His actions tell more than his words ever could and he may turn his body away from the other person, sit down and cross his legs in the other direction, even walk away before the conversation is finished. It's as important for him to understand his own body language as it is for the other person to do the same -- misunderstanding by either party puts each one at a disadvantage.