Career & Success

When Words Aren’t Enough: How to Excel at Nonverbal Communication

In this episode, Dana Carney shares the five nonverbal rules of power.

April 09, 2024

If communication is like painting, words are the primary colors. But to convey deeper meaning, we need a broader color palette, which Dana Carney says requires the mastery of nonverbal communication.

We often focus on the words that we say when honing our communication, but according to Carney, there are many instances “where nonverbals start to be more meaningful than verbals.” A professor at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the George Quist Chair in Business Ethics, Carney researches the nonverbal ways in which we communicate our biases, our preferences, our power, and our status.

As Carney explores in her forthcoming book, The Five Nonverbal Rules of Power, there are several key areas of nonverbal behavior that we need to grasp in order to fully tap our potential as communicators. In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, she and host Matt Abrahams discuss how to read the nonverbal communication of others — and how to gain control of the nonverbals we express to the world.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Note: Transcripts are generated by machine and lightly edited by humans. They may contain errors.

Matt Abrahams: I’m old enough to remember watching television in black and white, and the day we got our first color tv, my mind was blown. The same thing is true when you go from just focusing on verbal messages to thinking about nonverbal communication. My name is Matt Abraham’s and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast. Today I am really excited to talk with Dana Carney. Dana is the George Quis chair in business ethics at Berkeley’s HA School of Business. This year she’s on sabbatical from Berkeley and is spending time with us here in the management group at the GSB. Her research focuses on the nonverbal ways in which we communicate our biases, our preferences, our power, and our status. Her forthcoming book on nonverbal behavior is expected at the end of the year. Welcome, Dana. I am really looking forward to our conversation. Thanks for being here,

Dana Carney: Matt. Thank you so much for having me. I was so excited when you reached out.

Matt Abrahams: Should we get started?

Dana Carney: Absolutely.

Matt Abrahams: Dana, I’m so excited for this conversation because I have long been fascinated by your research and nonverbal communication. When I teach nonverbal communication, I referenced the three vs. Visual, verbal and vocal. Visual is what we see. Verbal is the words and fillers and spaces that we have, and then vocal is how we say those words. I’m curious, do you see nonverbal communication the same way and how do you explain it when you talk about it

Dana Carney: Almost the same way? First, there’s two big circles, Venn diagram overlapping circles. One is the perception side. What are the nonverbal behaviors that we need to pay attention to when we’re trying to make sense of or understand other people or situations? Then there’s the expression side, which is what are the behaviors that we can use as tools to express or land a particular attribute? So I would layer those on top of your three Vs. And then I would add, when you said visual, I would split that into face and body as separate channels.

Matt Abrahams: So nonverbals gives us a whole set of tools through which we can communicate information, and some of it are things we can control as you mentioned, and other things are things that perhaps are a less in our control, but we convey information through the words we say, but also how we say it and the demeanor with which we say it. I find this fascinating because there’s this whole other channel that we often don’t think about. Can you discuss how our perceptions of power in status are influenced by nonverbal communication?

Dana Carney: So it’s an entire chapter in my books in the chapter, it’s called The Five Nonverbal Rules of Power, and what it is is a Venn diagram where the perception nonverbals, the ones we need to know to read power accurately and the ones that people think are associated with power they intersect, and five areas of nonverbal behavior that if we remember those we can really tap into power and I’ll give you two that I think are particularly useful because people have a lot of control over them. One of them is eye contact. When you look at someone when you’re speaking and when they’re speaking, you’re really taking up space with your eyes. You’re not only saying, I see you, I hear you, but also I’m speaking to you and distributing that around the room. You’re almost spreading yourself around the room when you’re looking around there.

So eye contact is one that we have control over and it’s easy to force yourself to distribute and to use, and it has additional benefits. Not only does it convey power, but it conveys intelligence and warmth. So you just can’t go wrong with eye contact. So that would be one that I would say is one that everyone can practice and use. And another one is expansion. And I don’t just mean with your body, I don’t just mean taking up physical space with the bubble that’s around your body. I mean expansion in all kinds of ways. So taking a longer time to say what you’re saying, if you take more time, you are taking up space. So you see there’s a number of ways of taking up space. You can do it with how much you speak, how slowly you speak physically, spreading your body out in a way that feels comfortable. So those were the two I would say are easy to control and there’s a version of each that most people could probably find.

Matt Abrahams: So taking space and connecting through space, through eye contact, really important. That example of all the things we could do to take space shows the different types of paint that we can use to paint in this nonverbal way. It’s how you say it, how long you say it, how you physically show up, and not just you personally, but the stuff you put in front of you. All of that. And there’s this whole conversation that’s happening at that level that we perceive that we don’t necessarily consciously think about. I want to dive just a little deeper. Clearly culture and context plays a role in this. Some cultures I’m aware of, eye contact is actually seen as rude because you’re supposed to defer. What’s your take on the intersection of culture and context when it comes to nonverbals

Dana Carney: Eye contact? There’s not a lot of variability across culture when it comes to the speaker making eye contact with others. It’s where the rudeness or the cross-cultural variability in whether or not you’re being disrespectful comes from whether you’re looking at the speaker when you’re being spoken to. So it’s when you’re on the receiving end of being yelled at or reprimanded or whatever. Looking back is typically where you see the variability, not if I’m the speaker and I look at you, but yes, context matters, culture matters. So what I like to say is that there are certain sort of pillars that are safe spaces. For example, if you’re trying to convey warmth, looking at someone being a little bit closer to them, how close varies by culture, but proximity in general is associated with intimacy, body orientation toward, so these are all cues called immediacy cues, directing your communication toward them, like talking to them and smiling or nodding like you’re doing now you’re encouraging me smiling and nodding.

Those are called back channel responses. They unconsciously or implicitly are saying, I hear you, I see you. I recognize what you’re saying. We’re on the same page. There’s a cluster of things that convey liking, and so there might be some variability around how close or how much eye contact, but generally speaking, those are safe. And so when we go to another culture, we just need to figure out what are the boundaries around. So if I go to one culture, it’s two kisses, kiss, kiss, other cultures, there’s three kisses, kiss, kiss, kiss, other cultures, it’s the left cheek for them, another right? So it’s kind of like those things. It’s a nonverbal version of how many cheeks do I kiss and how many times. Right,

Matt Abrahams: Right. I appreciate that answer. It’s very nuanced and there’s complexity to it, but that’s the reality of nonverbal communication. This is not simple. I’m taking several things away from what you said. One that there are some foundational principles are, as you said, safe spaces around which there’s nuance that is culturally learnable and we just have to be sensitive to that. And so the big message I’m taking away is we just have to build awareness and be sensitive. We can ask, we can observe, we can research to learn what’s appropriate and not appropriate and know that by invoking the appropriate nonverbals, we can achieve goals like demonstrating warmth and liking that can really help us in ways sometimes that our words don’t allow us to do.

Dana Carney: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: I have another question for you about the relative value of nonverbals and actual messages. Where do you fall on the relative importance of verbal content versus nonverbal behavior? In other words, what we say versus how we say it?

Dana Carney: No, I don’t think any reasonable scientists would say that nonverbal is more important than verbal. I think most of us would say both are extremely important. If we’re in a domain where I have a reason to lie or maybe I don’t know, racial bias and discrimination being one, right? People aren’t aware of their biases or they are aware of them, but maybe not the extent to which they hold them, then we get into some territory where nonverbals start to be maybe more meaningful than verbals because I don’t realize that I have bias. I think that when you get into territory where either people don’t have introspective access to how they think or feel or they have their incentivized not to reveal it, right? In an economic game or a strategic interaction or a negotiation, that’s where nonverbal becomes really fun and interesting and useful because words aren’t enough in that case.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Yeah. So they’re both important and sometimes differentially important depending on the context, which again brings us back to this notion of context. So I have an example I always use when I teach. If you’re in a doctor’s office and the doctor says, how are you doing? That means one thing. If you’re at a bar at a party and somebody says, how are you doing? That means something very different. The words are the same, the environment and context is different, and we somehow know how to navigate through that, but also we can run into a lot of trouble when we misunderstand.

Dana Carney: Yes, and this is when knowing what our goal is is so incredibly important. If I’m at that bar and my goal is I’m attracted to this person and so I want to convey some attraction, so I might dip into some cues associated with attraction or being attractive. So when people use a breathier voice, they can come off as a little more attractive versus I’m a doctor and my goal is empathy. I want you to know that I’m listening. So the first thing you need to think about in a context is what’s my goal here? If I’m a doctor, I want to make sure that my patient feels heard and understood. If I’m in a bar and I just truly want to know how someone’s doing, I don’t want to use a vocal tone that might express attraction, I might want to be more casual or upbeat like, Hey, how you doing?

Use colloquial tone of voice with a lot of vocal variability that might be associated with having a good time. So that’s the first thing to do is what is my goal in this social interaction? And look, all of this stuff is happening in a fraction of a second, right? I mean, we don’t sit down and script out what we’re going to do before I’m going to go to the barge, and when I see this person, I’m going to say, I like to think about nonverbal communication as a language. Because once we kind of know what’s the list of cues associated with liking, which ones of those are associated with platonic liking versus intimate liking, and when I do this one, oh gosh, I don’t mean to be sending the wrong signal. So now not to do them and which behaviors are associated with being trusted, which behaviors are associated with conveying power? That I think really will help us think about how can I best land whatever it is that I am trying to land.

Matt Abrahams: We’ve talked often about this notion of having a goal. When you communicate by default, I think many people think of the words that I say, and what I’m hearing you say is we have to expand that goal to be thinking about how do we achieve that goal, not just through the words we say, but how we say it. And that’s really, really important. This notion of there’s a language and we have to understand and become fluent in that language, and some are more fluent than others, perhaps we have a time to talk about the people receiving that language. If I’m at a bar and hope that you’re signaling attraction to me, I’m going to be looking for things in a way that I might not if I weren’t the rose colored glasses, if you will, which I think is a separate conversation about our perception of nonverbals, not just our signaling of nonverbals

Dana Carney: Sometimes the nonverbal cues overlap, but if the audience takes one thing away from this conversation about nonverbal communication, it’s that there are perception and expression and they’re different, and also they overlap. And the easiest places to memorize what are the cues are the places of overlap, which is when we talked about the five non-verbal rules of power, and I gave you two of them, that they’re at the intersection of both perception and expression, which is those are the nice ones to memorize and practice because they do both.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. I want to keep this notion of language fluency. What are some things that we can do to become more aware of our nonverbal communication and how they come across? When I’m learning a language, I practice with people who say, no, your accent’s off, or you’re saying that wrong. What are some things that we can do to actually become more fluent? How can we learn about it? I ask my students to digitally record themselves as they practice. So they see their nonverbals and they watch it, and then they listen to it separately. So they’re hearing the different channels. What advice do you have about ways to help us become more conscious of what we’re doing? Because a lot of this is unconscious.

Dana Carney: Yes, that is exactly right. Hearing or seeing ourselves. So watching yourself is a really big way to know how, at least, how you perceive yourself. I would add some layers on top of that. First of all, in an exercise like that, right down beforehand, one or two goals that you have for that interaction. Do I want to try to come off as really smart here? Do I want to be warm? Am I trying to make new friends? Am I trying to do well in this negotiation? Am I trying to do well in this negotiation and retain friends? What’s my goal? And then I watch that video or listen to the audio, and I try to assess whether I appropriately land it that way. At least did I think that I correctly sent the messages I intended to send? That’s one piece of the puzzle, but that’s your perception.

Now it’s a matter of what did other people perceive. A big part of it is I intended to be kind, and when I look at myself, I seem to be kind, but we lack self-awareness about how we come across sometimes. And other people will see us and say like, oh, no, no, no. Let’s say our faces tend to be a little cranky, and we know that we smiled three more times in that interaction. So for us, we’re like, I was so nice in that interaction. I smiled three times. I never smile. So for us, we knew it was a big deviation from our baseline, and so we think we landed in a really warm positive way, but a stranger or another person with whom we interacted, if they were to watch and make ratings on those same dimensions, might give us a much lower score, which helps us assess, okay, so how I intended to land and whether or not I was successful, and then there was how did other people perceive that? And so that’s the missing piece in that puzzle is how do other people perceive you? And a layer a bit more on top of that, which is how do strangers perceive you versus friends or people who know you a little bit?

Matt Abrahams: This is really useful in that we can all look to better understand our nonverbal presence in terms of how it’s landing. We have our intent and we can see it, and we have knowledge relative to our baseline, but we also have to seek outside of ourselves. And when we do that, we also have to think about how much does information does that other person have about us? That’s really insightful, and in fact, it’s going to change the way I have my students look at their own behavior.

Dana Carney: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: I like to say the only way to get better at communication, verbal or nonverbal is three things, repetition, reflection, and feedback. You have to practice, you have to reflect, and then you have to give feedback. Dana, before we end, I’d like to ask you some questions. The first question will be unique to you, and then the other two are questions I ask everybody. Are you up for that?

Dana Carney: Yep, sounds great.

Matt Abrahams: Is there a particular nonverbal behavior that you look to assess credibility and confidence when you’re talking to others? What is it that you look for as an expert in this? Is there one thing you look for?

Dana Carney: Yes. We have not talked about coherence across channels. We talked about different channels of communication, the voice, the body, the face, but we haven’t talked about consistency across those channels. I’m looking for consistency across channels. If my face and my body and my voice and my words, if all of those things are saying the same thing, that makes me feel like that person is full in that way, I feel comfortable with them. Not only that they know what they’re talking about and they know whatever they’re saying is probably true. That is the thing that I pay attention to the most. And if people are inconsistent across channel, doesn’t necessarily mean something’s awry, but it’s something I pay attention to because it provides information about are they conflicted about what it is they’re talking about.

Matt Abrahams: I appreciate you sharing with us this notion of coherence because we’ve really dissected nonverbal communication into these very specific parts, and we have to remember that there’s a totality and whole that gets communicated and that we can assess that as well. It’s not just, did you make eye contact? It’s is the eye contact consistent with the body posture, with the vocal tone and the words and the words to help? Thank you. Question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Dana Carney: Winston Churchill, the two reasons I think that he’s just one of the best communicators, or the one that I probably look up to the most is that, I mean, he was so effective in being able to grab the hearts and minds of an entire country and to galvanize people. And the second reason is that Winston Churchill turned a speech impediment into his greatest source of power. He had a stutter, and he turned that into pause because of his stutter, he learned to pause a lot and to use those pauses extremely effectively,

Matt Abrahams: Truly an amazing communicator, and he worked hard. Final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Dana Carney: So first of all, we had talked about goals, right? You have to know what your goal is. If you don’t have clarity, at least a little bit of clarity about what your goal is, then you’re not going to be very effective. So my goal today was just to be clear, I didn’t quite know where we were going to go. I just knew that it was important for me to, whatever it was that I was going to get it across in a way that was at least a little bit succinct. Then knowing the nonverbal behaviors that land best for us, and that goes back to what we were talking about, the baseline knowing how we typically are so that we can figure out like, okay, I need to dial up the warmth. I don’t come across warmly at all. Like, gosh, I kind of see mean I’m not mean at all.

It’s not that you’re trying to be something that you’re not. It’s that you are something, but it doesn’t come across and you’re like, oh gosh, how do I fix that? Right? And that’s where your idea of practice. So then it’s knowing which cues I can dabble in. There’s a long list of immediacy cues that you can look at to try to practice and try on to figure out which one suits you the best, literally. And then what you said, practice, and it’s not about faking it or not being authentic. It really is about, I am a nice person, or let’s say you’re not a nice person. Let’s say you truly are not a nice person. Let’s say you’re a cranky person, but there are sometimes that you’re nice and let’s say your goal is to be nice right now. So my advice is try to think about the times that you want to be nice or that you are nice or that you truly feel nice and say like, okay, what are the things that are most comfortable for me to do when I am being nice? And then tap into those behaviors because those are the ones that are comfortable for you. And then practice them, and they do in fact land the way you intend them to. So those are the ingredients. It’s having a goal, knowing the best nonverbal behaviors that land what you’re intending to land, and then practicing, right? Just making sure that you’re doing them in an unconscious way, that you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, that they’re just automatically coming out of you.

Matt Abrahams: So be clear on your goal. Be clear on your baseline and practice. So Dana, thank you so much for your time and for your wisdom. People can’t see this, but I’m bowing my head and putting my hands together to demonstrate gratefulness,

Dana Carney: And I have my hand on my heart and I’m nodding my head to using, saying, thank you so much.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you for joining us for another episode of Think Fast Talk Smart, the podcast from Stanford, GSB. To learn more about nonverbal communication, please listen to episode 12 with Deb Gruenfeld or episode 16 with Burt Alper. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music is from Floyd Wonder. Please find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. Also follow us on LinkedIn and Instagram and check out faster for deep dive videos, English language learning content, and our newsletter.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More