Beyond Words

The science and fun of nonverbal communication

Experience Is Not Expertise in Nonverbal Communication

Understanding Body Language takes more than 10,000 hours of practice.

10,000 hours. That is the amount frequently cited as the number of hours it requires to be an expert in something. Malcolm Gladwell is arguably the most famous person for bringing this comment to the mainstream in his book The Outliers, however many people have referred to it in their books as well. Joseph T. Hallinan mentions it in his book Why We Make Mistakes

Hallinan mentions it from the perspective of explaining the difference between experience and expertise. Just because you have done something many times does not make you an expert at it.  Looking at this from the lens of trying to be more effective at using nonverbal communication as well as understanding the way others use it, our practice must be with an intention to be better.

Hallinan mentions the importance of proper practice (page 173):

"...practice needs to be directed toward improving the memory of the performance.  When performed correctly, prolonged, deliberate practice produces a large body of specialized knowledge–a library if you will–in the mind of the person doing the practice."

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Awareness of self-adaptors, like here used by Ellen Degeneres, takes more than just practice.

If you want to be better at using nonverbal communication, including your body language, it will take practice. I am not suggesting you need to become an expert and dedicate 10,000 hours, but rather dedicating some time to practice will make a difference. 

Much like being good at anything however, it does take time. For example, learning the Facial Action Coding System to learn the various facial movements and their corresponding emotions they can emit takes approximately over 200 hours to complete with an exam at the end.

A first step is making sure what you are practicing in regards to tips and suggestions in nonverbal communication is grounded in research. There are plenty of books and people out there claiming to be an expert- it is your job and part of your practice to make sure they actually are.

The above fits in nicely as Hallinan later adds, "simplify where you can, and build in constraints to block errors (189)." Again, from a nonverbal communication perspective:

1)   Simplify things: using my METTA acronym (movement, environment, touch, tone, and appearance- see more here) or creating one of your own will help ensure you are aware of all the nonverbal elements.

2)   Build in constraints to block errors: Again, using the METTA acronym can help prevent errors arising such as over-emphasizing on one nonverbal element at the expense of others. Also, critical to ensuring you are using, for example, positive body language, includes reading literature that offers specific examples of gestures as well as getting feedback from others. 

If you think you are being positive yet a dozen people say when you do a certain gesture or sit a certain way, makes them feel uncomfortable, you might want to re-evaluate continual use of it.

Even I admit it takes more than a PhD to be an 'expert' in nonverbal communication

I offer three tips, based on Danielle Blanch-Hartigan's research, to help you practice regardless if you are working towards 1 hour or 10,000 hours to becoming more aware of and understanding nonverbal communication:

1)   Search for credible teachers and their books, websites and tweets. Often, many provide free information to get you started (like this blog and my tweets!) including videos. However, just because someone claims to be an expert does not automatically qualify them as such. It is important to check their credentials to see what qualifies them to share such information. Check their professional experience, education, and what research they have conducted.

2)   You have to actually practice. Relying solely on reading books, following people on twitter, and viewing videos is like thinking you will be a good baseball player by watching lots of games on television. You have to practice in order to fully understand and use nonverbal communication effectively.

3)   Engage others. Again, reading books by yourself, and practicing by yourself is not sufficient and most likely you will not stick with it. Many people enjoy talking about nonverbal communication (be careful, lots of people make lots of assumptions)- look to engage others who are also interested in being more effective and share with each other what you have read and also what you have tried. Combining this point with the previous two, this also allows you to get feedback to find out how you are doing and if your practice and observations are accurate.

As you continue on your journey, regardless of the amount of hours, feel free to share with me your experiences, thoughts, and questions both here on this blog as well as on twitter (@NonverblaPhD).

Jeff Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate researching nonverbal communication and mediation at Griffith University Law School.

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