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Effective communication - what is the meaning of words and gestures?

Everyone has experienced a misunderstanding caused by a communication error. In the world of constant communication by means of speaking, writing, listening or even remaining silent, such problems are unavoidable. The good news is that by learning basic mechanisms of communication, many of them can be avoided.

Interpersonal communication researchers agree that communicative competence is a skill that determines our quality of life (Morreale et al. 2019). A thematic analysis of 679 scientific publications and press articles clearly confirms that communication, and especially communication education, is crucial for an individual’s personal and professional development (Morreale et al. 2017). Numerous studies indicate that the success of treatment depends on effective communication between medical professionals, as well as on the physician’s ability to talk to the patient and his or her family (Haynes et al. 2009, Williams et al. 2007). Communication errors are also the cause of most marital problems (Burgoon et al. 2010). It is evident that communication is important at every level of our lives and its effectiveness depends on two basic forms: verbal and non-verbal communication.

Four people standing over the table touch each other with clenched hands in a gesture of cooperation

A fundamental tool of verbal communication is the language, which consists of speaking, writing, listening and reading. To achieve effective verbal communication, it is important for the sender to adapt to the recipient (the recipient’s gender, age, education and experience) and the type of message to be conveyed. A doctor discussing a diagnosis with another professional will feel comfortable using medical terminology, but when discussing the treatment process with a patient, she should use simpler language adapted to the patient’s communicative competence. A less evident example of the same situation is the use of a jargon developed within a group (e.g. friends) towards third persons. This way of communication may not only lead to misunderstanding, but may even discourage people who have just met from getting to know each other better. There are many barriers to effective communication, which, for simplicity, can be divided into three categories (Bolton, 2007), such as: judging, providing solutions and a lack of empathy. 

While verbal messages usually deal with a specific issue, problem, or topic, non-verbal messages primarily refer to the relationship between the sender and the recipient. Non-verbal communication, often referred to as a body language, can enhance, weaken or contradict verbal messages. The way we sit, gesticulate, make facial expressions, gaze, shake hands and even position our bodies can communicate more information than a sentence uttered. Our body language can enhance the message conveyed by words or even replace it. Parents do not have to shush their children, they just have to place an index finger vertically over their lips. Extending a hand towards the other person is a perfect sign to start or end a conversation, and patting a colleague on the shoulder can be a compliment (‘Good job!’) or a sign of support (‘You'll be fine’). Gestures, more or less conscious, can also contradict the spoken words, for example when you are holding your hand over your mouth as if you did not want the message to come out (a gesture often seen among children telling each other secrets), because the message is not true or the information should be concealed. A doctor reprimanding a patient who, in his opinion, came too late with his problem, and at the same time constantly looking at his watch, answering the phone and giving orders to his colleagues, reinforces the patient’s belief that he or she is an intruder at the office.

Students presenting a paper in a group very often unconsciously make a gesture allowing them to get accustomed to the situation (the so-called adaptor) and rub the fingers of one hand on the inside of the other or stroke one arm or thigh with one hand (‘You can do it’). Two people saying the same words will be perceived very differently if one of them is sitting in a chair with her feet wide apart, her hand on the back of the chair and her chin raised, while the other is hunched over with his back bent and his eyes fixed on his shoelaces. If you slightly lean towards the interlocutor, you will make him or her feel he or she is being listened to. The same effect can be achieved looking towards the interlocutor most of the time and nodding at the right moments. A contradiction between verbal and non-verbal messages may cause dissonance in the recipient. A simple example is when you say that everything is fine, while your body is slightly hunched over and the corners of your mouth drop down. 

Most non-verbal messages, especially gestures, are learned during primary socialisation. For this reason cultural differences may be a barrier to the correct reception of non-verbal messages. For example, in Poland moving your head up and down means agreement, while the same gesture in Bulgaria has the opposite meaning. When travelling or meeting people from other cultures, it is worth bearing in mind that they may be using different gestures.

Communication competencies are crucial for building and maintaining relationships. Fortunately, there are a few golden rules that, when practised, will help you to avoid misunderstanding. First, hearing and active listening are not the same thing. When talking, we need to respond to our partner’s messages by sending verbal (uh-huh, yes) or non-verbal (e.g. nodding) messages that are appropriate to what the sender is saying. Secondly, you should be perceptive to both verbal and body language messages. As you have already realised, communication is more than just words. Thirdly, do not judge the interlocutor and do not impose your vision of reality. Be open-minded and try to empathise with your interlocutor’s situation. Good luck!

Reference literature:

Bolton, R., Bariery na drodze komunikacji, (in:) J. Stewart (ed.), Mosty zamiast murów, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2007.

Burgoon, J., Guerrero, L., Manusov, V., Nonverbal Communication, New York: Routledge, 2010. DOI:

Morreale, S. P., Valenzano, J. M., & Bauer, J. A., Why communication education is important: a third study on the centrality of the discipline’s content and pedagogy, ‘Communication Education’, 66(4), 2017, 402–422. DOI:

Morreale,S.P., Spitzberg B.H., Barge, J.K., Komunikacja między ludźmi, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2019.

About the author

Aleksandra Piłat-Kobla is an employee of the Chair of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, where she teaches sociology of medicine, including social communication, sociology and social problems. She is a graduate of Sociology, Journalism and Social Communication.