Improve Your Nonverbal Communication Skills: An Open-and-Shut Case

July 21, 2014

Your nonverbal communication can be open or closed. When it’s open, you invite people to connect with you and demonstrate your desire to connect with them. When it’s closed, you disrupt your ability to connect with them. On some level, they sense you are shutting them out.

Let’s look at four categories of movements and how they either project openness or they distance you from others. When you understand how to use them, you have a lot more control over someone’s perception of your power, your confidence, and your intentions.


Barriers put distance between you and others. They can be an object you put between yourself and someone else—a desk or cell phone, for example—or a body posture.

  • Reduce the extent to which your desk is a barrier by moving files or a laptop to the side. Hold your cell phone to the side when you’re in conversation with someone.
  • Eyelids are a barrier that you remove when you make eye contact with someone.
  • Keeping your arms to the side opens your body to the person you are interacting with. It conveys trust and a desire to connect.
  • Avoid demonstrating a cliché by “turning your back on someone” or “giving him the cold shoulder.” These phrases describe the act of using your body as a barrier.



Adaptors are nervous gestures you do without thinking. They can make other people feel uncomfortable around you, but if you ask them, they might not even be able to tell you exactly why they feel uncomfortable.

Adaptors are self soothing movements. That means that something about doing them makes you feel as though you’re releasing tension. Women tend to use relatively small movements, such as rubbing fingertips together, touching their hair, playing with an earring, and wiggling toes. Men may wring their hands, rub their thighs, click a pen, or drum their fingers on a table.

  • Identify what you do when you feel some stress and stop doing it in public. If you have difficulty identifying your adaptors, ask someone who has the opportunity to observe you in stressful situations.


Some illustrators help you project confidence and openness, and some completely destroy it.

Illustrators are like punctuation for what you’re saying. Some of them are invitational, some of them aggressively make a point, some of them indicate uncertainty, entreaty, frustration, anger, surprise, and so on. In fact, sometimes we use illustrators instead of words, like a shrug of the shoulders. Illustrators can be facial movements as well as hand, arm, torso, leg, and feet movements.

  • Use open and fluid movements.
  • Avoid whipping and pushing motions.

Example: In making an important point to a person or group, an extended arm with the palm up is one way to invite people to agree. Contrast the effect with an extended arm and a finger pointed at the person or group. The latter is an aggressive move that turns your statement into a lecture.


These are movements meant to regulate someone’s speech. Certain gestures clearly indicate that the listener wants the speaker to talk faster, stop talking, or keep talking. They are deliberate movements of the hand or head, for example, putting the hand up, palm facing the speaker; there is a cross-cultural understanding that gesture means something negative, usually “stop.”

In trying to forge stronger professional relationships, choose regulators that are either:

  • neutral, that is, that show no sign of an intent to interrupt, or
  • positive, that is, they indicate you want the speaker to continue. Examples of this include a slight lean toward the person and eye contact to suggest interest, and an occasional nod of the head to indicate “keep going.”

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About The Author

Maryann Karinch, author of 20 books and ACE certified personal trainer, is a veteran business insider and communications consultant. Her previous books include Diets Designed for Athletes, How to Spot a Liar, I Can Read You Like a Book, and How to Become an Expert on Anything in 2 Hours. She lives in Estes Park, Colorado.

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    […] your efforts to gain additional insights into your personal style, remember your body language. Posture, gestures, and vocal characteristics are all part of the important non-verbal […]

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