Nonverbal Cues: Speak Without Words

It’s not always what you say, but how you say it. So what are you saying nonverbally — intended or unintended — to your prospects?

August 1, 2007

There’s an old adage that goes: “A little smile adds a great deal to your face value.”

I think of this saying often as it relates to real estate, as it seems that too many practitioners get caught up in the words they speak, and fail to put enough effort into their nonverbal communication — including a simple smile — that’s so important to successful client relationships.

The reality is that your words play a very small role in the impact you have on others. How small? One expert, psychologist Albert Mehrabian, did research to find out. He performed studies to learn which factors affect the likeability of a person delivering a message. The results: Words account for a slim 7 percent of likeability, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent, and body language accounts for 55 percent.

To be an effective communicator, it’s important that you not only read other peoples’ nonverbal messages, but that you focus on sending your own. Just as many people are unaware of the signals they’re sending through body language and facial expressions, they’re also subconsciously making impressions about you based on these signals.

Here are five ways you can make sure your unspoken word is just as powerful as your spoken message.

1. Find common ground.

To learn more about good communication, let’s look at how the word originated. The Latin root, commune means “held in common.” Unless you have something in common with the person you’re trying to communicate with, it’s difficult — if not impossible — for you to establish rapport.

You can find common ground in a nonverbal way by mirroring the other person’s body language. When I say mirror, I don’t mean mimic. Rather, subtly reflect their actions or pose. For example, if they’re smiling, you should smile. If they have a relaxed pose, you should do the same. Try to mirror the tone of your voice with the buyer or seller that you’re working with, too. If a consumer is a soft talker then you might consider speaking softly too. This will normally help put the other party at ease and make them feel comfortable around you.

2. Watch your tone.

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk and you get a call from a prospective buyer who wants to know more about your listing. All that person will know about you and your company will come from your voice — and your enthusiasm will play a major role in determining whether that person will choose to work with you.

You might answer the phone by saying: “It’s a GREAT day at XYZ Realty, how may I help you?” How you answer the telephone, the tone of your voice, and whether you sound enthusiastic can help buyers decide if they will want to work with you or not. So answer the telephone with a smile on your face and it’ll spill over the telephone line into your greetings. While this is very important to keep in mind when you’re on the phone, your tone of voice also is a factor when meeting with people in person.

3. Make your body talk.

You’ve probably heard and read lots of tips about using body language as part of your communications. But do you ever actually practice it?

Here are some tips to try:

  • Avoid folding your arms across your chest (even if you’re chilly!) because it could suggest you’re defensive, rather than open to what your client is saying.
  • Show you’re interested in the conversation by relaxing your hands in an open position, leaning in slightly as you listen, and providing approving nods during the conversation.
  • Put a kibosh on fidgeting.
  • Cross your legs toward your client, which researchers say signals that you’re interested in what the other person is saying.
  • Greet clients with a firm and welcoming handshake to instantly demonstrate genuine, mutual respect.

4. Focus on eye contact.

Strong eye contact helps to develop trust, while minimal eye contact suggests boredom. Don’t go overboard, though, by staring your clients in the eye — otherwise, you might intimidate them or make them feel nervous. You’ll also want to avoid shifting your eyes too frequently, staring at your notes, or excessively blinking, which can be distracting and make others feel uncomfortable.

5. Don’t be a close talker.

Many people have a bad habit of standing too close to others during conversation. When you invade someone’s personal space, you can cause them to feel uneasy and want to end the conversation quickly.

There are four main types of conversation distances during interactions, according to business professor Anthony Urbaniak of Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. In his article in Supervision magazine, he says these territorial distances can help you determine how close to sit or stand next to someone:

So, the next time you’re in the middle of your 30-minute sales pitch about how great and wonderful your company is, remind yourself that it’s not all about what you’re saying that matters to the person on the other end. Rather, it’s how you’re saying the words and with what manner and tone that really convinces them. Developing good nonverbal communication skills is essential if you want to win more business and keep the clients you have.

  1. Intimate: up to 2 feet (about an arms-length). This is often reserved for close friends; a client could be offended if you stood this close.
  2. Personal: 2 to 4 feet. This is the closest you should stand or sit to clients — but they may still feel uncomfortable. Urbaniak suggests using barriers such as a desk to reduce the threat when at this proximity.
  3. Social: 4 to 12 feet. This is usually used for sales presentations.
  4. Public: more than 12 feet. This is the distance you would want to stand when making a presentation to a group of people.

John D. Mayfield, ABR, CRB, e-PRO, GRI, is a sales coach, author, and broker/owner of Mayfield Real Estate in Farmington, Mo. You can contact Mayfield through his Web site,