Listening, Nonverbal Cues, and the Workplace

Published 19 Aug 2017

Communication is an integral part of the workplace. From owners, to managers, to the staff and aides, communication is an inevitable occurrence—inevitable because even without speaking, every one is communicating. As well, communication is integral because it is through this that interconnection between managers and employees can be established. However, there are two main points that are often overlooked in workplace communication: listening and nonverbal communication.


In communication, listening is regarded as the most important element. It is where speech, reading, and writing starts, and continues. There is a process involved in this, played by the listener, speaker, message, and visuals. (Grognet and Van Duzer, 2002)

Humphries (2001) claim that people always think they are good at listening, but actually misses the whole point of it. Both the speaker and the listener are culprits in the listening failure for most communication processes. Speakers, for instance, pre-judge their listeners, so they adapt a way of speech that they think will best suit how their listeners will comprehend their message. Thus, the listeners get a message that may be different from what the original message is trying to convey. For instance, an employee may cut a message short enough for a busy co-worker to get the message, regardless if it is complete—a scenario which often leads to miscommunication.

Listeners also have a hand on the dilemma. The worst fault of listeners is, again, pre-judgment. Listeners sometimes judge the speakers and try to comprehend the message according to how they perceive the listener. (Humphries, 2001) For example, Employee A tells Employee B that she likes everybody at work—but Employee B knows Employee A has been spreading ill words about people in the office. He will then take the statement as either sarcasm or a lie, even if Employee A meant to say it at good will.

Multitasking is also to blame. Listening oftentimes fails in the workplace because people at work would like to accomplish as much work in as little time as possible. Multitasking is part of many employees’ everyday work life.

However, when a person does many things at one time, it is his listening skills that suffer. Also, manners dictate that when you speak to someone, you should give your full undivided attention. Same goes in a larger scope, when companies deal with customer opinion or feedback—when companies disregard these, they are not listening. If they do not start listening, they are loosing the clients one time or another. (Humphries, 2001)

Without listening, the verbal communication process fails. Feedback would be impossible, and evaluation will be poor when people at work are not good listeners. Many office mishaps and workplace catastrophes have resulted from simple cases of bad listening behavior. To develop this important workplace tool, Grognet and Van Duzer (2002) suggests that speakers should make an effort for some sort of pre-listening activity, a statement to catch the receiver’s attention. Listening can then follow, then a post-listening phase where the receiver is encouraged to give feedback, such as repeating the context of the message or asking questions.

Visuals is another important aspect of listening. When people find it hard to listen, it is effective to use visualizations to demonstrate the meaning or the needed result of the message. This is where nonverbal communication comes in.

Nonverbal Communication

Another underdeveloped skill at work is the art of nonverbal communication. People might think that they are effectively communicating with their actions, not knowing that in fact they are failing to do so. Thinkquest (n.d.) approaches nonverbal communications as two sciences, namely proxemics and kinesics.

Proxemics, developed by anthropologist Edward Hall, deals with the gestures, postures, and other nonverbal cues that people use to convey their emotions or messages, often in place of words that they may be not be comfortable to verbalize. An example of proxemics is the nodding of the head which means “yes,” often done when a person is too preoccupied, in doubt, or forced to say yes. On the other hand, kinesics studied nonverbal communication scientifically. It is kinesics that classifies a nonverbal behavior as body language. Developed by Ray Birdwhistell, also an anthropologist, kinesics accompanies speech and is preferably and accurately observed with regard to the context in which the body language has been executed. (Thinkquest, nd)

There are eight types of nonverbal communication cues according to Van Wagner (2007). These are facial expressions, gestures, paralinguistics, body language and posture, proxemics, haptics, and appearance. The most consistent of the eight is facial expressions, as emotions expressed by the face are consistently similar across cultures. Americans smile when they are happy, and so does the Chinese and the Europeans. Gestures, however, have varying meanings from one group of person to another. Tone, pitch, and other manners in which words are verbalized are also nonverbal cues, and they are called paralinguistics—they also convey meaning that may change the context of the verbalized words.

Proxemics deals with the distance we need to facilitate communication. It should be noted that Van Wagner had a different definition for proxemics as compared to Thinkquest, but further research reveals that proxemics in fact has two varying meanings. Of course, eye gaze is another nonverbal cue that uses the eyes to convey meaning. Haptics, or touch communication, can also mean many things. Appearance is another important nonverbal cue that affects communication. (Van Wagner, 2007)

These nonverbal cues proliferate at work, and they can be misused and abused many times. Both senders and receivers of messages play a role in decoding messages conveyed through nonverbal cues. To be effective, senders must ensure that they are using the appropriate gesture, posture, or body language that will best suit their message. It should also be taken into consideration that the cues being used are familiar to both the sender and the receiver, otherwise miscommunication or misunderstandings may ensue. Receivers are likewise entailed to decode nonverbal cues appropriately, giving full regard to the context in which the gesture or body language has been executed. The receiver of the message should remember that nonverbal cues differ in meaning under different circumstances, and analysis should be carefully made.

Listening and nonverbal communication may appear to be two different things at work, but sufficiently understood and executed, they can both be used—even simultaneously—to aid effective workplace communication, which is very important in any corporate setting. When workers are trained to communicate, they do not only exhibit good verbal expression techniques, they also listen and encourage good listening in the people they speak with, and they use nonverbal communication effectively and accurately. In the end, it aids in better performance, teamwork, and ultimately a better organization.


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