The Sacred Path

Journeys through the mist

Verbal and non-verbal communication

Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar, Marshall McLuhan said, “Communication is a miracle.” Who can disagree with that?

Some years ago my focus drifted away from a conversation and I became consciously aware that there was a non-verbal component to the conversation. After observing this phenomenon on several occasions, I realized that I had been utilizing the non-verbal component unconsciously all along, but once I had become aware of it, it became an invaluable tool.

How much of a communication is verbal and how much non-verbal, seems to depend in part on the difficulty of the subject and/or the intent of the person, and in some cases the bulk of the communication is actually non-verbal.

There also seems to be a built-in ethics program at work as well. At times I actually get all the “blanks” filled in so that the combination of the verbal and non-verbal creates an entire picture (full access), while at other times I simply get a knowing without detail (limited access). It isn’t mind reading as I am not probing their thoughts or memories, and the information is being sent to me, or at the very least made available.

This tool has proved very useful when helping friends explain or understand an experience that is obviously beyond words. In one such instance there were three of us involved in a conversation, and the two of us listening were consciously aware of the non-verbal, and between the three of us we came up with a way of expressing the experience verbally, which came close to describing the actual experience.

The challenging ones are when the two components are in conflict. I trust the non-verbal over the verbal because I don’t believe it is possible for us to purposely deceive on that higher level, but it is certainly possible that we can misinterpret the non-verbal since everything is filtered through our physical-life programming and beliefs. That’s why in such cases I always ask questions. I try to make the questions as neutral as possible, because the other person is aware – at least subconsciously – of the conflict and the last thing I want to do is cause the other person to become defensive or shut down.

It has also been invaluable in business dealings. I know that when there is conflict between verbal and non-verbal, or the ratio of non-verbal to verbal is high, that I need to ask questions. I always approach these situations by giving the other party the benefit of the doubt until I have enough information to make an informed decision. If it becomes apparent that the goal is deception, and it is not simply a desire to protect certain proprietary information or something similar, I back out graciously and move on to something else.

As with anything in our lives, it is a matter of being aware of the process and the limitations (our filtering process), weighing all available information, and then making a decision.


  1. Frank DeMarco

    Apr 19, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I can’t recall the specific reference, but I read once that at least one scholar thinks that Emerson’s thought was so advanced, and his perceptions so fine, at least partly because of his exceptional sensitivity to the unspoken, to what they call gesture.

  2. Richard

    I’m so glad someone has verified this for me!!

    In conversations with people I am sometimes surprised that they don’t say what they mean – not realising that I have been having non-verbal contact with them!!

    This has only become evident to me in the last few months. I met a really nice man recently and on first introducing ourselves and looking into his eyes I thought “what is being said here is more than just introduction!” The non-verbal communication was very palpable. We have since become good friends and I mentioned this to him, jokingly saying that I could read his mind and he agreed with me (saying that he hoped I didn’t read EVERYTHING he was thinking!! LOL!)

    Now that I know what it is, I will try and use this “skill” a lot more.


  3. Irene,

    I’m glad to have been of help, and it certainly is a wonderful tool to have.


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