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4 Tips for Understanding and Interpreting Nonverbal Communication

Written by Paula Gray

4 Tips for Understanding and Interpreting Nonverbal Communication
by Paula Gray, AIPMM

Recognizing that an ethnography respondent, focus group participant or interviewee may be offering much more information nonverbally than they are with words, is crucial to gathering a deeper level of information. Here are 4 key insights to understanding what they aren’t saying.

  • Facial expressions are, surprisingly, universal. Watch for contradictions between the facial expression and the words the individual is saying. The face can reveal conflicted emotions or the true belief, opinion, or feeling that the individual holds.
  • How individuals place themselves within the room space and in relation to each other can be very informative. How a group arranges itself around a conference table can reveal a hierarchy within the group. Observe if some people intrude on other’s personal space, creating discomfort.
  • The sound of an individual’s communication can reveal far more than the content. Variances in the pitch, volume or intonation can offer insight into the true underlying feelings. Very slow speech can indicate thoughtfulness or possibly deceit. Very fast speech that sounds as if they are trying to get through an answer quickly can indicate self-doubt or even deceit. When the pitch increases it may indicate the individual is nervous, tense or is lying. When the speech volume lowers it may mean the individual is insecure or doubtful.
  • Body movements can also reveal information about how an individual really feels. These clues differ between cultures so it is best to have an understanding of the shared culture of the group. If an individual presents their open palms to a listener it often shows honesty and openness. Arms and legs that are tightly crossed is indicative of defensiveness and may mean the individual is uncomfortable or is attempting to hide their real feelings. Breaking eye contact can be an attempt to hide a feeling of doubt, deceit or exaggeration.

This is a very brief touch on the extensive field of non-verbal communication. For further information you can access the webpage maintained by Professor Scott Plous at Wesleyan University, the Social Psychology Network Dr. Plous features extensive links to books, journals, articles and other areas of research. One noted behavioral science researcher you may be somewhat familiar with is Dr. Paul Ekman. FOX TV actually created a show, called Lie To Me, based on his research.

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.