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Types of Nonverbal Communication in Project Management

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Ginny Edwards • updated: 5/24/2011

Within every project, managers, team members, and stakeholders need to understand the types of nonverbal communication. Beyond being able to communicate effectively through technology, people must also understand what comes with physical nonverbal communication. Jean Scheid explores this issue.

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    What Is Nonverbal Communication?

    382px-Ear Years ago, when I started my career, I found myself working in the human resources department for a national company that built, rented, and maintained apartment complexes, and communication from construction heads, onsite property managers, the maintenance staff, and corporate personnel was abundant—and in many forms.

    I can’t help remembering one assistant controller who slumped into my office the day prior to every payday to obtain the latest payroll information and always leaving my office with slumped shoulders and mumbled comments on why the company didn’t have enough money to “make payroll."

    When I think back of good old assistant controller Fred, I can’t help thinking about the dominant styles of nonverbal communication and how Fred’s attitude spawned much fear and dissension. Those brief grumbles heard by close co-workers of mine soon turned into, “Did you hear what Fred said? The company is going bankrupt for sure any day now!" Not only were Fred’s grumblings incorrect, they did translate to others as a total company fallout in the eyes of both corporate and remote employees.

    Another type of nonverbal communication is when emails, faxes, memos, texts, and voice messages get lost in the translation. Is it because the sender of these transmissions is unable to communicate effectively or is the receiver at fault for interpreting the transmission incorrectly?

    Both physical gestures and communication in a technology format are both examples of nonverbal communication; and both often need to be taught correctly and can always use a little guidance from management.

    Image Credit: Ear (

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    Dealing With Nonverbal Communication Issues

    No project manager wants to deal with a team member like assistant controller Fred whose physical shoulder-slumping gestures brought doom and gloom to his co-workers. Along with Fred, there was another co-worker that each day left continual voice mail messages on my phone that always started with, “I forgot another important thing!" How important or immediate the message or to-do task was, I could never really tell. Both of these forms of nonverbal communication can be handled within your project team if you outline acceptable forms of communications with generalized formats or use role-playing techniques. Keep in mind that special care should be taken when considering the various generational styles of your staff.

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    Technology Communication Formats

    Whether you develop written communication guidelines that include acceptable forms of communication and acceptable depth of communication for an entire organization or for project purposes only, either will help you and everyone understand how the communication process will work.

    The communication plan template found in our Media Gallery lists specifically who will initiate communication, but more importantly, in what format, the type of communication, and its purpose. If people are given designated guidelines to use as a tool when considering the types of nonverbal communication such as interoffice emails, they are more likely to follow that format and not sway from the instructed guidelines.

    In other words, if my old co-worker that constantly left voice mail messages for me that appeared to be urgent, instead chose an email format that clearly defined the "what" in a predetermined format designed by the project manager, it would be better received and understood.

    Instead of allowing everyone involved in the project to communicate in their own nonverbal way, create guidelines and don’t just email them to everyone. Discuss acceptable types of nonverbal communication and what formats they should follow.

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    Physical Nonverbal Communication

    800px-US Army 52939 Reintegration Role playing If your problem lies in the physical nonverbal communication world, you may have to work a little harder at creating an effective and productive environment. It may not be possible to create a written plan for acceptable physical nonverbal communication, but you can, through role-playing and discussions, deal with this type of nonverbal communication.

    First, identify the nonverbal physical communication styles of your staff. You probably have the eye-roller, the slumped shouldered guy, the defensive arm-crossed gal, and the staff member who never engages in any type of communication and appears standoffish.

    For these types, role-playing is a good idea. Write down various types of nonverbal communication styles on small sheets of paper and place them in a small box or bowl. Have two members choose a style and offer them a communication scenario instructing them to use the communication style example provided. This type of role-playing activity often opens the eyes of the offender and helps to change their style.

    For those who are truly dismal, no matter what you do, you may need to confront these individuals in private. Perhaps there is something going on in their personal life that creates a negative attitude and physical expression. Maybe co-workers tend to pick on this team member and you are unaware of this situation. Whatever the reason, individual confrontation should be done in private and as the project manager you must use effective listening skills and be sympathetic to their problems.

    Finally, when dealing with types of nonverbal communication, especially the physical types, if you’ve made every attempt to connect with the negativity of a staff member to no avail; it’s often better to cut your losses and replace the individual or assign them to a task that doesn’t require much communication or connection to other co-workers.

    Image Credit: Role Playing (

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    All for One and One for All!

    Often when dealing with the different types of nonverbal communication, project managers may need a little help. Two great places that offer online workshops include:

    1. Academic & Business Communication - This training company offers a few courses on how to deal with nonverbal business communication.
    2. Serebra Learning Corporation - This seminar company also offers online video format communication teachings including dealing with nonverbal communication.

    As the team leader, or even if you’re the designated staff member who is put in charge of how communication will work within your organization, understanding the types of nonverbal communication and how to deal with them is essential. If you’re not adept at handling the job, consider a course or seminar to guide you.