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Non-Verbal Communication

Daniel Olsen, Senior Consultant, SDAO


You are driving down the road and you see a bumper stick on the car ahead of you. It has a name, or symbol on it. It may evoke a smile, a chuckle, irritation, or anger. And…It is only a bumper sticker. Yet you have an emotional response. Yet, it has communicated a message to you.

Purpose of this article

 The purpose of this article is to make you aware of the many ways we receive non-verbal communication (NVC) and how it can impact your retention of volunteers. There is verbal communication – the words we choose to speak and there is non-verbal communication (NVC) – all the rest.


Importance of Non-Verbal Communication

To attract and retain volunteers, what ae the messages you are sending out? Is your message clear, concise, complete, and courteous? Is it helping to attract and retain volunteers? Or are volunteers leaving your organization?

Communication encourages, influences, informs, educates, motivates, and directs. It should build rapport and trust with others. Communication evokes emotional responses. These can be positive or negative. which can include supportive, encouraging, or antagonistic or resentful to others.


Non-verbal communication at a glance

Here is an example of NVC. When you see a person approaching, what are some of the things should observe? What is the posture of the individual? Is it confident and displays energy? Or does the person bent over and appears to be tired, maybe even defeated? Do they carry themselves in a confident manner or defeated? Do they walk fast or slow? How are they dressed? What is the style, fit and condition of their clothing items? What is their hair color? Or maybe lack of it? Do they have body art/tattoos or jewelry? As the individual gets closer, do they emit odor or fragrance?

This has taken only a few seconds yet from these inputs, you most likely made assumptions about the person. Those assumptions will most likely affect how you interact with them. Your assumptions may be accurate or inaccurate. But your assumptions will influence your behavior when interacting with them. We need to be cautious about the assumptions we make. Think of the times when your first impressions and assumptions were not accurate. As we learned more, our assumptions, and interactions, with others changed.

Now, ask yourself, what do others see when they observe you walking towards them? What do others see when observing members of your department walking towards them?

We are hearing more about non-verbal communication (NVC) today. However, NVC is not new. Charles Darwin was the first to study NVC and first published his work on NVC in 1872.


Types of Non-Verbal communication

Look at the types of NVC:

1.     Body Movement

  • Kinesics- a person’s posture, carriage, gestures, and body movements.
  • Facial expression- which includes smiling frowning, staring and “the Look” which someone will give you.
  • Eye contact- incudes the duration and intensity of making eye contact or the absence of eye contact
  • Physiological response. These include blushing, perspiration/sweat, rate of breathing.


2.     Speech pattern

  • Paralinguistics is how we speak. Sometimes this is called vocalics. The manner of how individuals speak. People can speak loudly or softly, rapidly, or slowly. This also includes pitch and tone a person uses. Some people may be monotone or animated with their voice.


3.     Other physical

  • Physical Adornment can include the type of clothing we wear including the style, color, and it. The clothing may have slogans or emblems on them.
  • Olfactory communication includes body odor and fragrances a person may use. These smells/fragrances can enhance or detract from the person.
  • Haptics which is touching behavior. Some people are ‘touchy-feely” while others will recoil from the touch of others. A common haptic is the handshake which can be firm or soft and other variations.


4.     Physical spacing

  • Spatial positioning is the space, or distance between others. The space between people. There are four basic spaces: intimate, personal, social, and public)


5.     Use of time

  • Chronemics- how people use time. Some are punctual and precise, others more relaxed and unprecise.


While we spend time preparing the words we use for a presentation, how much time do you spend preparing the NVC components of your message?

NVC also depends on the environment and situation. Consider a person yelling and screaming at an athletic contest. Now consider the same person and same behavior inside a library, or a hospital.

The power of NVC extends to your office, the lobby of your station, Training room and others. This will include color, lighting, cleanliness, and decorations. These all send messages to others who enter them.



  • NVC is a powerful method of transmitting messages to others.
  • Be aware of the different types of NVC. Be aware and observe the various types.
  • Make observations but be cautious about the assumptions we make. They will affect the manner in which you interact with others. Take the time to talk with others and learn about them.
  • Consider how you prepare for a recruiting session. Consider the messages you are sending when you meet with others you are attempting to recruit. Think about the daily meetings with your existing volunteers. Are you sending the message they are valued and appreciated?
  • Consider your NVC behavior and the messages you are sending to your volunteers.