Hearing Link

Non-verbal communication

What is non-verbal communication?

As lipreaders we are told that we can only lipread about 30% of language. But did you know that according to research, when we communicate with others, our words make up only 7% of our total communication? 38% is our vocal signals and 55% is our body language (non-verbal communication).

When we converse with another person we are letting them know things about ourselves in ways we would never imagine – without even saying a word.

Understanding what is going on between people often depends on interpreting non-verbal communication. Next time you are sitting at a table look at the people around you. Sitting with your arms folded on the table and leaning forward can denote a display of interest or a need to be more comfortable.

For those of us with a hearing loss, however slight, non-verbal communication can often provide us with a range of clues about what is going on. Many people say they do not lipread, they ‘face read’.

Lipreading is helpful but face reading is a more appropriate term because clues are gained from observing the whole face.

Tone of voice

When we speak we use different tones to say the words and this conveys meaning. We emphasise some words or we whisper to give a dramatic effect. These variations of tone and expression not only help to convey our meaning but often make others more interested in what we say.

Even if we cannot hear/lipread the exact words, we can recognise the feelings generated by the tone, emphasis and expression. The word ‘no’ can be said in so many different ways. ‘No’ – just a general comment. ‘No?’ – a question or expression of disbelief. ‘No – o’ – slight hesitancy indicating not quite sure. ‘NO!’ definite and unequivocal – not going to do it or believe it, or we use it to stop some-one doing something.

Even if we can’t hear these words we can see the expressions, the body language and the way in which the word was said. This all informs our interpretation of what we are lipreading.

Non-verbal communication – facial expressions and eye contact

Watching a person’s face can give us clues to help us with our lipreading. We are all very good at reading other’s faces and seem to know intuitively whether a person is really happy or just putting on a good show!

If their face is smiling but the rest of their body language shows that are not feeling good, we receive confused messages. Even when we were hearing we would have used this interpretation of body language, facial expression, tone of voice and gestures to inform what we heard. Now we need to use our knowledge of this to help us make sense of what we are hearing and lipreading.

If we see/hear something that doesn’t match up with the facial expressions or body language we often ignore what has been said, and focus instead on the moods and feelings conveyed through body language and react accordingly. This is no different to what hearing people do.

We need to be aware that signals can be misread – for instance people drumming their fingers can be interpreted as boredom/irritation, but equally it can be just a habit.

When we receive confusing messages, it may be a good idea to ask people to clarify what they are saying. We all have to use our own judgement to know when to do this, whether we are hearing or have a hearing loss.

Eye contact is something that we all like to have, and when we first practise lipreading, taking in all the gestures and body language plus making eye contact as well as watching a person’s mouth, can seem like mission impossible. But as our lipreading skills develop we can take in the other aspects of a person’s communication.

Non-verbal communication – body language and posture

A person’s body language will tell us a lot about how they are feeling, and couple this with the expression on their face we can gauge if what they are telling us about is a happy or sad event/experience.

  • Drooping shoulders and generally sagging body usually denote that someone is feeling miserable. Limp use of the hands and dragging feet also usually denotes all is not well.
  • Conversely if a person is happy or excited their body is usually uplifted and seems to give off an aura of well-being.
  • Often, people cannot keep still for too long if they are excited.
  • Agitated finger rubbing usually means they are anxious.

We know ourselves that if we are feeling unhappy about something our body seems to sag and we give off general negative vibes. Non-verbal communication not only tells us about the person’s mood, it can also add meaning to what is lipread. Any extra information we can see will inform our lipreading.

Non-verbal communication – gestures

Pointing and other use of the hands to enhance descriptions of objects or places can also be helpful. Sign language uses the hands to convey messages and many of the signs actually relate to what is being said, if something is large the hands usually convey this message and similarly if something is small.

People who sign may use similar hand signs for different word meanings, but they will be accompanied by lip patterns and or facial expressions. We use other parts of our body to gesture we may not say anything but shrug our shoulders indicating possibly that we don’t know in response to a question.

We perform actions to add emphasis to what we are saying e.g. make a kicking action if talking about football, pretending to wobble if we are talking about someone who is unsteady for any reason or if describing a vase falling over. There are so many examples of how we use actions to enhance what we are talking about.

We can use our eyes to point too or to give other information. Raising our eyes can have so many different meanings and be relevant to what we are hearing/lipreading.

We are very good at getting our message across and with good will on all sides, knowledge of all these aspects of communication will help everyone. Sometimes the gestures used are well-known and use widely for specific purposes e.g. V for victory sign.

Remember it is not only the hearing person who uses gestures to convey information about themselves, those of us with hearing loss do it too. Practice makes us better at reading non – verbal clues.


Webpage published: 2018

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