You can tell a lot about how well a small group is working together just by looking at them from a distance. What they are saying without words often says a great deal. Nonverbal communication conveys as much as or more meaning than spoken words.
Sandra Hybels and Richard Weaver II highlight this nonverbal research statistic in their textbook Communicating Effectively: “Albert Mehrabian, a contemporary writer on nonverbal communication, has determined from his research that as much as 93 percent of communication is nonverbal” (p. 104).
That the words of any message we send to other persons or to a group makes up only seven percent of the message seems unbelievable. However, Mehrabian’s claim is easier to understand when we look at some of the elements of nonverbal communication: facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, hand gestures, posture, clothing, accessories (pins, ties, glasses, watches, jewelry, etc.), touch, space, the communication environment, and the time.
The way a group is seated influences the amount of involvement each member has in group discussion. A Sabbath School group that meets in church pews has a different dynamic than a group that meets in a circle. Seated in church pews, group members face and have interaction with the facilitator but cannot interact easily with other members of the group.
Group members who sit around a table may impact each other just by where they decide to sit. Group leaders are more likely to choose a seat at the head of a rectangular or square table. People seated directly in the line of eye contact with the leader generally are more frequently acknowledged and given more speaking opportunities.
A small group leader who uses a a round table sends a message that power and authority are not as important as the sharing of information.
Facial Expression and Eye Contact
By looking at the facial expressions of group members, an observer can usually tell if members are interested, understand, or agree with what is said. On the other hand, it is possible to misread facial expressions and impossible to read someone’s mind.
An uninformed North American leader could easily assume that a Korean individual in their group who does not give direct eye contact is being rude, rather than showing respect for authority. Each member of a group interprets eye contact from his or her cultural perspective. So when working in small groups, we must not assume anything.
Sometimes cross-cultural nonverbal messages contradict one another. For example, Latin American and Asian cultures show respect for their elders and authority figures by looking down when speaking to them. North Americans value direct eye contact.
Some people can’t talk unless their hands are moving. Other people sit with their hands in their laps or on the table and move only to accent a point with a simple gesture. Neither style is right or wrong.
If we look around a group, we also see that no two people dress exactly alike. However, personal appearance and member attire can influence a small group meeting, because consciously or unconsciously each person makes a statement by what he or she wears. Formal or informal meetings require different styles of dress.
Age may dictate appropriate attire in various settings. What one generation considers appropriate to wear to Sabbath School may not be perceived by another as being appropriate. Hairstyles and accessories may not mean the same thing to everyone.
If there is no specified dress, encourage members not to cast judgment based upon their preferences or standards. Members respond best if they help set the standard and leaders get a group consensus at the first meeting.
If you have doubts about the meaning of any nonverbal message that is being sent by someone, ask the individual if what you think is implied nonverbally is really what they mean. You will be surprised at how many misunderstandings you will save just by using words—the 7 percent of communication we cannot do without.
Carole Luke Kilcher
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists