Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #5: It’s not all about the words – effective communication and body language in lockdown

Bodylanguage 1Our verbal communications are only one dimension of the way we communicate with family, friends, colleagues and others in lockdown. Non-verbal communication is another dimension. Non-verbal communication consists of aspects of communication which can be seen by the other party – the ‘visuals’, and other forms of communication which can be heard – the ‘vocals’. To communicate and negotiate effectively in lockdown it is important for us all to be aware of body language messaging.

The term ‘visuals’ refers to all aspects of communication and messaging conveyed by the sender which are observed, as opposed to being heard, by the receiver. Body language is the most prominent form of visual communication. It involves our bodily appearance as well as our movements which express attitudes, feelings, emotions and other messages. For example, it could include a sender’s clothing, posture, body and limb movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye motions, and physiological reactions such as blushing, sweating and quickened breathing. The face and eyes are often portrayed as the most important conveyers of body language but micro-signals in these areas are not always easy to read and interpret.

Facial expression

We can fake body language to some degree, but it’s not always easy, for example in relation to eye signals, facial expressions, blushing or shortness of breath. Children, in particular, find it difficult to conceal body language and their crossed legs or averted eyes may betray the apparent innocence of their spoken words. Unlike verbal communication, body language never stops and when a person is verbally silent it remains the only way in which they are communicating.

It is important for us all to be aware of the stark contrasts in body language messaging across diverse cultures, but some generalised features of body language and their possible meanings in western societies are:

  • Open limb positions — receptivity towards what is being said.
  • Crossed or folded limbs — defensiveness towards what is being said.
  • Forward-leaning body posture — attentiveness to speaker.
  • Backward-leaning body posture — indifference to speaker.
  • Open hands — plain dealing and honesty.
  • Closed fists, pointed fingers — aggression, threatening attitude.
  • Direct eye contact — sincerity, openness, honest dealing.
  • Averted gaze, avoidance of eye contact — deceit, guilt, shame. (Although in certain cultures direct eye contact may be impolite and, conversely, avoiding eye contact may be intended as a sign of respect rather than an admission of guilt or liability.)

Body language expert Allan and Barbara Pease make the following observations (2017: 10):

  • More than 65 per cent of a message is conveyed non-verbally.
  • Non-verbal communication has a significance in communication five times that of verbal communication.
  • In general, non-verbal communication conveys interpersonal attitudes while verbal communication imparts information.
  • Some non-verbal signals are learned and some we are born with.
  • A single gesture may have many meanings and should be interpreted in the context of associated verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as the person’s culture and the social environment in which it takes place.

Body language can either confirm or contradict what is being said verbally, or it might simply confuse. When it comes to interpreting body language it is dangerous to place too much weight on a single factor.

Body language in the form of ‘visuals’ also includes messages received from the broader environment such as the size of an office, the shape of a table, the size and height of chairs, seating placements, and lighting for example. These factors can sometimes convey power, strength, status, domination, tranquility or equality and other such messages more emphatically and unequivocally than words. Without any spoken terms, body language or other express communication, can convey a whole mood and atmosphere.

‘Vocal’ aspects of communication refer to the many messages sent and received in verbal communication over and above the actual words, terms and language used. They are sometimes referred to as paralanguage and include volume, pitch, pace, tone, inflection, emphasis, intonation, rhythm, resonance and silence. One can add to this litany things like laughter and sighs. The vocal elements of communication disclose emotion, attitudes and states of mind which are not conveyed through words themselves in verbal communication.

As the vocals are auditory signals (except of course for silence), it is difficult to demonstrate them through written words. However, the following illustration shows the different meanings which the same five words can have, depending on where the emphasis is placed by the speaker:

  • LexisNexis mediation books are awesome (but not mediation books from other publishers).
  • LexisNexis mediation books are awesome (but not LexisNexis books on meditation and medication).
  • LexisNexis mediation books are awesome (but not LexisNexis mediation DVDs, you-tubes or blogs).
  • LexisNexis mediation books are awesome (I had my doubts but now that I’ve read them …).
  • LexisNexis mediation books are awesome (they are unbelievably good, top class, of the highest quality).

Mediation in Australia

As with body language, some forms of vocal communication are difficult to disguise. Where the vocal messages contradict the spoken words, listeners tend to be influenced more by the vocal message than the words spoken. This can be demonstrated in relation to sarcasm where emphasis and tone can give spoken words a meaning diametrically opposed to their literal meaning. So, if you say the above sentence with the relevant emphasis and tone on both syllables of ‘awesome’ it can be received as a contemptuous comment on the books’ merits. There are many subtle deviations from literal verbal meaning that can be detected from vocal communication.

In our COVID-19 lockdown communications and negotiations our aim in playing the lockdown language game is to prevent, manage and resolve disputes effectively. For this reason, it’s important that we harness our dispute resolution agency and work hard to observe and interpret vocal messages and body language appropriately and with care. We need to take care not to assign a mistaken meaning to another person’s conduct – perhaps by using a summarising technique or asking clarifying questions (both these skills are discussed in more detail in later posts in the series).

In other words, sometimes we need to make tentative interpretations of visuals and vocals and check-in with the person we are communicating with to see if our interpretation is correct, never reading too much into a single cue. For example, a person’s sudden body movement might be caused as much by discomfort, habit or a medical condition as by anger or boredom. If a person frowns at something it might be that they are disapproving or upset, or it might simply be that they are distracted by something completely different or are unable to see clearly without their glasses. Where behavioural signals occur in clusters, for example dilation of the pupils, heavier breathing and distressed hand movements, they are easier to diagnose tentatively than where they are isolated occurrences.

Non-verbal signals are most significant where they are incongruent with the verbal message, for example where the verbal messages signify assent but the crossed legs or nervous eye-movements suggest resistance, or where the words suggest honesty but the higher pitched voice suggests deceit.

In lockdown, making intentional, positive choices about our own non-verbals, as well as about the ways in which we interpret the visual and vocal body language of others, is one way we can harness our dispute resolution agency for constructive communications and positively prevent, manage and resolve disputes.


The content of this post was adapted and reproduced from Laurence Boulle and Nadja Alexander, Mediation Skills and Techniques (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2020) paras 6.29-6.39 with the kind permission of the authors. Thank you Laurence and Nadja! Both Laurence and Nadja are esteemed members of the ADR Research Network and have long been leaders in the Australian and international dispute resolution communities.

See also, Allan Pease and Barbara Pease, The Definitive Book of Body Language (Harlequin, 2017).

Body language image: Essential Personnel

Facial expression image: Backstage

This entry was posted in Dispute resolution by Dr Rachael Field. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr Rachael Field

Rachael is a Professor of Law in the Law Faculty of Bond University. Her key teaching and research interests are in legal education and dispute resolution. Rachael was awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation in 2008 and was made an ALTC Teaching Fellow in 2010. In 2010 Rachael worked with Professors Sally Kift and Mark Israel on the development of the Threshold Learning Outcomes for Law. In 2013 Rachael and Prof Nick James published a first year law text entitled "The New Lawyer". Rachael has been a member of the First Year in Higher Education Conference organising committee since 2007 and now chairs that committee. She was awarded the 2013 Lexis Nexis Australasian Law Teachers’ Association Major Prize for Teaching Excellence and Innovation jointly with her colleague James Duffy. In 2014 Rachael was awarded an Office of Learning and Teaching national Teaching Excellence Award. Rachael has also been a member of the Women’s Legal Service, Brisbane Management Committee since 1994 and has been President of the Service since 2004. In 2010 Rachael, along with the Women's Legal Service Brisbane, was commissioned by the Federal Attorney-General to design a model of family dispute resolution for use in matters where there is a history of domestic violence. This model was implemented in 5 locations around Australia for 18 months and was evaluated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In 2011 and 2012 Rachael was invited by the Australian Human Rights Commission to contribute to their International Program by presenting the model to bi-lateral workshops with the All China Women's Federation. Rachael completed her PhD through the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Professor Hilary Astor in 2011. Her thesis explored the notion of neutrality in mediation and offers an alternative paradigm based on professional mediator ethics. Rachael was named Queensland Women Lawyer of the Year for 2013. Research Interests • Dispute Resolution • Women and the Law • Restorative Justice • Family Law • Legal Education

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