Improving Nonverbal Communication: A Guide for Upcoming Criminal Justice Professionals

Criminal justice professionals can greatly benefit by improving their nonverbal communication recognition skills. In this field, it is essential to be able to accurately assess nonverbal communication in dealing with coworkers, and especially clients. While, “nonverbal communication is not an exact science” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003), there are several ways in which we can learn to read the body language of others and therefore better understand the message they are trying to send.

While many of us probably visualize using body language as “talking with the hands” or gesturing, it is comprised of so much more than that. Nonverbal communication can be the way you move your eyes, the tone you speak with, the position of your arms and hands, and what you are actively doing while speaking. Nonverbal communication consists of, “The body (kinesics), the voice (paralanguage), objects (proxemics), and touch (haptics).” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). Each form of nonverbal communication either singularly or concomitantly plays an important role in helping us to grasp the true meaning of a message, and what I will describe are effective ways to improve nonverbal communication.

How do you know your perception of what is being communicated is accurate? We can ascertain accuracy through a variety of means, but before we do that, we must take into account who is speaking. If the person speaking is of a higher intelligence, their behaviors can be considered more reliable, based on the simple fact that it can be assumed that someone of higher intelligence can better understand what is being asked of them. Secondly, we must determine if the person we are in communication with is emotionally stable or suffers from a mental illness. Emotional instability can greatly interfere with nonverbal behaviors. Thirdly, the nonverbal conduct of children or those who are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol is definitely untrustworthy and cannot be considered for accuracy. Children have still underdeveloped social skills while those under the influence of drugs/alcohol are temporarily mentally and physically impaired. Cultural differences play a role, too. Body language and the interpretation of body language and nonverbal communication vary among cultures, so this should be kept in mind when assessing nonverbal cues.

In determining whether your perception of what is being communicated is accurate, you should first study a person’s body movements and surprisingly, body type. “Body size and shape have long been associated with certain stereotypical characteristics or traits. These body types identified through previous research are endomorphs, ectomorphs, and mesomorphs.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). Short, round endomorphs are thought to be warm and sociable, while conversely, tall and thin ectomorphs are usually cautious and shy. Mesomorphs are muscular and are properly proportioned and are cheerful, but may be hot-tempered at times. While always categorizing a person’s body type may be stereotyping, it can’t hurt to make it a slightly significant factor in the overall evaluation of a person’s character.

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In examining body movements to help us decide if we are properly perceiving a message, is the communicator using illustrators? This may be in the form of demonstrating the dimensions of an object. What about the communicator’s affect displays, which are unable to be controlled? Affect displays, which are movements of the face that express emotion, can be used to determine one’s truthfulness or to determine what emotions are associated with their verbal message. For example, “Wide eyes and pursed lips in a witness convey that he or she is frightened or anxious.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). In addition to affect displays, regulators such as nodding the head at a certain speed during a conversation can show us how a person is feeling, therefore helping us to perceive a message. “Slow, periodic nods from the listener indicate that he or she is listening and understands the message, and further, that the speaker should continue talking.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). Movements like adaptors can help us decide if the person of which we are communicating with is experiencing stress or anxiety. Adaptor behaviors can be in the forms of shaking one leg, tapping the feet, toying with the hair, stroking the chin, etc. While all of these specifics are valuable in judging nonverbal indicators, it is important not to forget posture, gestures, the position of the head, and eye movement. When someone is leaning toward another person, this signals interest as does an upright head, while leaning away naturally suggests disinterest or dislike. Eyes can tell us a lot, as well. “The eye dart occurs when an individual is unable to maintain eye contact for a reasonable amount of time (between 10 seconds and 1 minute or more). In essence, their eyes are constantly darting from place to place signaling disinterest or dishonesty.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003).

The next way to improve nonverbal communication is by listening to the qualities, characterizers, qualifiers, and segregates of the voice. By understanding paralinguistics, it can assist us in accurately perceiving a message. Voice quality is the pitch, rhythm, tempo, and volume. A person who is speaking fast and loud with negative affect displays is most likely angry. One who is speaking softly, slowly, and quietly while looking down and turning red in the face can be shy, or possibly embarrassed. The quality of a person’s voice is critical in helping to decipher the true meaning of their message. “Voice characterizers include things such as grunting, clearing the throat, yawning, and coughing. Characterizers should be avoided while speaking because they are very annoying.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). Anything that can be considered annoying is also a distraction, which can interrupt communication. Qualifiers, closely related to qualities, are the way in which a person stresses certain words or phrases by changing their tone or volume. Lastly, vocal segregates are considered to be, “Nonfluencies or periods of silence between words.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003).

The use of proxemics (space and objects) is fundamental in improving nonverbal communication. One important aspect of proxemics is the amount of personal space we feel comfortable with. While these distances are vastly different depending upon the culture, Americans generally feel comfortable with an intimate personal space range at 0 to 18 inches, at a personal distance at 1 ½ to 4 feet, at a social distance at 4 to 12 feet, and a public distance at more than 12 feet. It is vital to choose the correct amount of distance when communicating that is appropriate for the situation. For example, it could possibly be very uncomfortable for both parties if you sat in an intimate space range of only 18 inches when speaking to a teacher, and it could be just as uncomfortable if you stayed 12 feet away from a close family member of whom you were speaking with. Clothing is another significant aspect of proxemics as, “The way we dress communicates to others who we are, what we are, and how important we are to the world.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003).

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Lastly, touch has a huge impact on nonverbal communication and communication in general. Touch tends to cause quite a physical and mental reaction in all of us, and can signify a positive such as a “high five” meaning that someone has done something great, all the way to a hug, which can suggest a variety of emotions. Shaking hands, for example, is a critical part of professional or personal interaction, and we even judge one’s character based upon the strength of the handshake.

As well meaning as a person may be, sometimes their nonverbal cues can convey a misunderstanding. One example is when two people are conversing, and one keeps glancing away while twirling their hair. To the other person, this can demonstrate that the hair twirler is bored, disinterested, and generally lacks active involvement in the conversation, while in fact, the hair twirler is for some reason experiencing stress or anxiety. It is possible that a word or phrase used in conversation “set them off” and they unconsciously became anxious. To bring them back, you can either shift the conversation to something that will ease their anxiety, or you can ask them a question that will change their train of thought. Another situation that can convey a misunderstanding is when a person’s words and actions express contradicting meanings. This can occur, for example, when a person is explaining a situation that occurred yet is looking down at their lap instead of using eye contact or complementing gestures. While this often signals dishonestly, it can also signal sadness, which is precisely why all types of nonverbal communication should be examined when making an assessment of a person or trying to better comprehend their message.

While building strong nonverbal communication skills can be helpful to anyone who wishes to communicate more effectively, criminal justice professionals often rely on these skills daily since their jobs frequently require them to make evaluations of those who break the law. Body movements, personal distance, facial color, facial expressions, and paralanguage offer insight into a subject’s truthfulness.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). Deceptive body movements can come in the form of moving and fidgeting legs, feet, and hands while maintaining a detached, cool facial expression while answering questions. Interestingly, the hands and the position of one’s arms play a role in discovering dishonesty. “Arms folded tightly across the chest signify refusal or defiance. Arms loosely folded convey relaxation. If this gesture is difficult to interpret merely from the arms, the hands provide additional information. If the hands are closed in a fist or tightly grasping the biceps, this supports the refusal or defiance state; open and relaxed mean the individual is relaxed.” (Grubb, Hemby, 2003). While the fact that a person is not relaxed does not automatically indicate untruthfulness, nervousness is usually associated with lying because if you have nothing to hide, why be nervous? Other nervous behaviors are tapping fingers, wobbling knees back and forth, crossing and uncrossing legs, leg motion, and breaking eye contact. Clothing adjustments or grooming can signal delay tactics while suspects are constructing a false story. In seeking the truth, criminal justice professionals sometimes intimidate a suspect and condition them not to lie by moving closer to them as questioning becomes more serious, and they also take note of a suspect’s facial color. Either very pale or very red can indicate lying as the fight or flight response that occurs during an anxiety state causes physical changes due to the capillaries in the face.

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How can criminal justice professionals build strong nonverbal communication skills? Practical behaviors that can be implemented are:

  • Establishing and maintaining eye contact
  • Using postures that exhibits alertness and interest
  • Removing physical barriers that do not allow room for comfortable communication
  • Comprehending facial expressions and body language to more thoroughly understand a message
  • Politely ask questions to be sure that you understand what a sender is expressing
  • Always ensure that you take into account all characteristics of a person before assessing nonverbal messages

While some nonverbal communication skills come naturally to human beings, most of us will greatly benefit from putting these skills into practice and improving on them as time goes on. Nonverbal communication is important not only in a professional environment, but in all aspects of life. By learning to truly “listen” to a person’s message, you can maintain better friendships, personal relationships, casual relationships, and even make more informed and confident decisions because you fully comprehend all facets of a message and have greatly improved the way you can relate to others.