Main Body

5 Nonverbal Communication & Active Listening in Small Groups

Kate D. McCain & Jaclyn S. Marsh

“Nonverbal communication comprises a core element of the interactions between leader and follower…the role of communication for leadership in organizations is indisputable, supporting everyday interaction between supervisors and subordinates” (Gkorezis et al., 2015).



 Nonverbal communication and active listening play a vital role in leadership skill development, influencing how we engage in small groups. Organizations can benefit from leaders who utilize effective communication skills—both verbal and, more importantly, nonverbal—to represent their ideas. This chapter will investigate the following questions: How do we communicate with others nonverbally? What are some characteristics of nonverbal communication? How can we listen more effectively? How are our small groups affected by our nonverbal communication and listening? We will define nonverbal communication and understand how to interpret it in our everyday interactions. We will then discuss the ten channels of nonverbal communication. Next, we will describe the six stages of effective listening as they apply to interpersonal relationships and small group situations by understanding the HURIER Model (Brownell, 2012). Lastly, we will focus on connecting nonverbal communication and active listening within the Social Change Model of Leadership.


CHAPTER SPOTLIGHT – By Kate McCain: The Story of Two Friends in Healthcare

Two of my best friends work in healthcare. One is a physical therapist at a rural hospital. The other is a pharmacist at a large metropolitan women’s hospital. I was having dinner with my two friends and listening to them talk about their jobs. They both described two types of experiences in their roles: (a) serving patients and administrative/managerial duties such as organizing schedules and ordering supplies and (b) dealing with issues among co-workers.

As they shared more about their roles, I started asking them questions about leadership. Everything they were discussing connected to working in small groups and leadership skills. The physical therapist discussed working with patients whose first languages are not English and relying heavily on nonverbal communication to understand the patients’ issues and concerns. She also shared how she listens attentively to others to find the best means for treatment outcomes.

The pharmacist, who is in a service leader role, discussed how she oversees a group of people and must navigate the complexities of staffing when multiple people ask for time off. She also shared the challenges of listening to all employees on managing staffing for overnight shifts (no one likes to work nights) to ensure the rotations among co-workers are fair. As illustrated by their experiences, nonverbal communication, active listening, and navigating small group challenges are essential leadership skills for many careers.


By the end of this chapter, you will be able to…

  • define nonverbal communication and identify the ten channels of nonverbal communication.
  • interpret nonverbal messages as they pertain to everyday conversation (and in leadership situations).
  • identify the six stages of effective listening.
  • understand the role of nonverbal communication and active listening as critical interpersonal skills for leadership.

 KEYWORDS: Nonverbal communication, active listening, interpersonal leadership skills


Defining Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is everything we do while communicating that is not verbal, including our gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements (Greene et al., 1994; Jandt, 2001). Floyd (2017) defines nonverbal communication as the meaning we convey through our actions without using words and describes five characteristics of nonverbal communication (see Table 1).

Table 1 | Characteristics of Nonverbal Communication

This image includes five nonverbal communication characteristics and its description.  1. Nonverbal communication is present in all conversations: focusing on what people are saying and how they are saying the words.  2. Nonverbal communication usually delivers more information than just our verbal word choices: Researchers have found that we gather 65-70% of our meaning in conversations of our nonverbal clues (Burgoon et al a., 2011).  3. Nonverbal communication is more believable than verbal communication: We tend to believe a person's nonverbal cues over what they are saying when there are conflicting messages (Burgoon et al., 2010).  4. Nonverbal communication is the primary way we show our emotions: We can talk about our feelings, but our emotions (e.g., sad, happy, or upset) are visible on our faces (Matsumoto & Hwang, 2013).  5. Nonverbal communication tells people when and if we are ready to communicate: When we do not like a conversation, it is evident through nonverbals that we are unhappy at that moment.

These characteristics represent the role of nonverbal communication in our relationships. We can utilize Floyd’s (2017) theory on the characteristics of nonverbal communication to ensure that what we are saying and how we are saying it is communicating the same message. Overall, it is necessary to remember that nonverbal cues are believed more than our words, and nonverbal communication impacts how we convey meaning in our conversations.

Ten Channels of Nonverbal Communication

Now that we have defined nonverbal communication, let’s look at the ten most common ways we use our nonverbals. Table 2 outlines how we communicate nonverbally. These ten channels represent how nonverbal communication can strengthen or hinder the interpretations of our verbal messages. By understanding how our nonverbals affect our communication, we can be more aware of our communication patterns.

 Table 2 | Channels of Nonverbal Communication

This image describes 10 channels of nonverbal communication.  1. Facial expressions: Facial expressions are among the universal forms of nonverbal body language  2. Eye contact: Eyes play an important role; staring, blinking, and pupil dilation can tell a lot about a person and how someone is feeling  3. Body language/kinesics: Kinesics is the study of movement used to explain our thoughts or ideas  4. Touch/haptics: Haptics is the study of touch, which conveys meaning through physical contact  5. Vocal behaviors/paralinguistics: Paralinguistic is the study of vocal signals beyond the basic verbal message or speech  6. Sense of smell: Smell triggers memories and emotions and can affect how we communicate or receive communication  7. Use of space/proxemics: Proxemics is the study oof space; indicating where we choose to stand often represents how we feel about a person  8. Physical appearance: Clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, and other factors affecting appearance are a means of nonverbal communication  9. Time/chronemics: Chronemics is the study of the use of time, and it influences perceptions of punctuality, willingness to wait, and interactions  10. Color: Research on color psychology has demonstrated that different colors can evoke different moods

Nonverbal Communication & Interacting with Others

Think back to the most recent experience you had working in a group or team. Chances are you are working in groups right now in your classes, jobs, or even your service-learning experience. When we interact and communicate with others, we engage in small group situations. The complexity of working with group members or a team is best illustrated by thinking of a group as a system, a set of interconnected parts working together in a changing environment (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). As group size increases, the complexity of the interaction system increases as well. Consider the following calculations: two group members = two possible interactions; three group members = nine possible interactions; four group members = 28 possible interactions; five group members = 75 possible interactions, and so on (Business Communication for Success, 2012). No wonder it can be challenging to schedule meetings and make decisions when working in small groups.

The behavior of one member affects the entire group due to the interconnectedness of system parts, especially if the behavior is disruptive. How do you interpret the nonverbal behavior of a group member who appears distracted on their cell phone during a team meeting? How do you feel when that group member looks up from their phone and asks what is going on in the conversation? As you can see, our nonverbal communication and listening skills play essential roles within our interpersonal and small group interactions. Your ability to communicate effectively or ineffectively can mean success or failure for a group.

Riggio et al. (2003) explain that leaders skilled at communication (including nonverbal skills) are the most effective. For example, when you show genuine interest (both verbally and nonverbally) and actively listen to others’ opinions in the group, you exercise supportive communication patterns. The more followers “feel respected by their leaders, the more they will ‘return the favor’ by being open to their leader’s influence” (van Quaquebeke & Eckloff, 2010, p. 352).

As you consider your next steps after college, think about how nonverbal communication will impact your success in future professional positions. For a closer look at how your nonverbals influence your career, you might be interested in reading this article:

Darics, E. (2020). E-leadership or “How to be boss in instant messaging?” The role of nonverbal communication. International Journal of Business Communication, 57(1), 3-29.

HURIER Model of Active or Effective Listening

An important aspect of nonverbal communication is showing we are effectively listening to others. In 2012, a professor of organizational communication, Judi Brownell, created the HURIER Model of Effective Listening to describe the various stages of listening. Figure 1 illustrates the six stages of engaging in active listening.

Figure 1 | Stages of Active Listening This image depicts the stages of active listening. Stages are positioned in a circle with the last stage having an arrow indicated that active listening is a cycle.


  1. Hearing. The physical act of perceiving sound. We can hear someone talking, but that does not mean we listen to them. First, we physically hear the words but do not necessarily process or understand the words.
  2. Understanding. We then begin to hear what people are saying and can understand it. Understanding means that we comprehend the meaning of what someone is telling us (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2001).
  3. Remembering. We use our memory to help us store information we can retrieve later (Janusik, 2007).
  4. Interpreting. We move beyond understanding and remembering to interpret the information; this involves interpreting nonverbal cues alongside verbal communication.
  5. Evaluating. We evaluate the message for credibility and truth behind the communication to decide opinions versus facts. We are also thinking about the context of the communication to evaluate its authenticity.
  6. Responding. Finally, we respond. Notice that responding is the sixth step and not one of the first steps. We give feedback during this stage, both verbally and nonverbally. There are multiple ways of responding depending on the situation and the context.


Active Listening & Interacting with Others

Active listening skills are important when we interact with others. Especially in our digital age, with the increase in technology and global interactions, listening in online contexts actively is a vital skill for building relationships and developing as a leader. Kane (2018) explains that leaders with strong digital communication skills are in high demand. A recent article identified five critical competencies for digital listening by leaders: (1) frequently sharing information, (2) allowing employees to ask questions, (3) asking for input about leaders’ ideas, (4) following up on employee suggestions, and (5) demonstrating awareness and appreciation for employee efforts (Cardon et al., 2019). Think about how current events have moved so much of our interactions and communication online. Are you aware of how others are perceiving your nonverbals online? Do you take time to engage in active listening when working with others online? Whether the environment is face-to-face or digital, active listening is an essential interpersonal skill that takes practice.


Connection to the Social Change Model of Leadership

Values of the Social Change Model (SCM) are connected to the concepts of nonverbal communication and active listening in interpersonal relationships and groups. Individual values (e.g., Consciousness of Self) refer to people’s awareness of their traits, values, and strengths, as well as self-awareness (Fincher, 2009). An individual’s awareness of their own communication in terms of nonverbal behaviors and active listening is essential in leadership skill development.

Cilente (2009) explains, “Leadership for social change occurs at the group level” (p. 57). When considering group complexities, group values from the SCM (i.e., Collaboration, Common Purpose, and Controversy with Civility) require active listening from all group members and understanding of nonverbal communication. With nonverbal communication channels and active listening strategies in mind, how might you better engage in social change within your relationships and groups?



As you can see, nonverbal communication and active listening are important interpersonal skills for leadership. These skills are essential for successful communication in interpersonal and small-group settings. Day in and day out, we engage with others. Thus, you must practice your nonverbal behaviors and active listening skills to ensure you are an effective leader while working with others, whether on a small scale in classroom groups or a large scale for social change. What you say and how you say it matters.


  • Reflect on your service-learning experiences and how they have shaped your understanding of nonverbal communication and active listening. Can you describe a situation where you noticed someone’s nonverbal communication during a conversation that influenced your perception? How did their nonverbals impact the conversation?
  • Why is it beneficial to use nonverbal communication and active listening in small group situations? What might be the negative consequences for leaders who do not practice these skills? Identify and describe a situation where a leader did/or did not effectively communicate.
  • We use turn-requesting gestures to indicate that we wish to speak and turn-denying gestures to indicate that we do not wish to speak. For example, turn-requesting would be probing “what do you think” with an open hand gesture. In contrast, turn-denying would be putting up a hand (i.e., stop) to indicate you are not willing to communicate. How do you find your nonverbals to help (or hinder) your ability to communicate within an interpersonal or small group leadership setting?




Video Activity (30 minutes) 

TED Talk: Amy Cuddy on Nonverbal Communication (20-minute video). Cuddy’s research on body language reveals that we can change other people’s perceptions and even our body chemistry by changing the position of our bodies.


STEP 1: Observe how students sit when they come into the room.

STEP 2: Ask students to record how they are sitting.

STEP 3: Ask students to reflect on three questions; jot them down in notebooks

  • Can you ‘fake it til you make it?’
  • Do our nonverbals impact how we think/feel about ourselves?
  • Can our bodies (posture) change our minds?

STEP 4: Watch the video and openly discuss students’ reactions

Practice/Application Activity (Full class period or homework activity)

Observations & Data Gathering. This activity aims to have you observe daily nonverbal communication behaviors (a mini-ethnography), which can be done during class or as an out-of-class homework activity.


STEP 1: Location—Choose a location to sit where you are out of the way, but you can observe interpersonal interactions and nonverbal communication of others. Some locations you may choose are libraries, restaurants, shopping malls, the student center, athletic events, etc.

STEP 2: Observation Notes—Once you have chosen your location, observe the nonverbal communication between observed individuals. Can you identify the type of relationship they may have with one another? Please make detailed observation notes. Your notes may include the setting or environment, location surroundings, noise level, nonverbal communication channels, etc. Your notes should be on a separate sheet of paper and approximately one page.

Observation prompts:

  1. Describe the setting chosen for the observation.
  2. Describe the interpersonal interaction(s) and nonverbal communication observed. Describe what you saw happening. Some examples could be a couple in an argument, classmates in confusion, a couple in love, etc. What are your conclusions from these observations? What helped you to draw these conclusions?
  3. Spend a few moments analyzing and evaluating your observations, then describe your interpretations and reactions.
  4. Share any other insights or comments about the observation.

STEP 3: Review the ten nonverbal communication channels (Floyd, 2017) and make notes of where you observed these in action.

STEP 4: Have students discuss their findings in class. What were their observations? How much can we learn from understanding nonverbal communication?

Active Listening Activity

Students will learn how to engage in active listening by practicing their listening skills with a partner. You will hand out a sheet of paper, and one of the students will be the clue giver, and the other will be the clue receiver. The clue giver will be allowed to speak, and the clue receiver will have to follow the instructions to draw the picture that the clue giver tells them to draw from their handout. There are a total of three rounds.


STEP 1: With your partner, decide who will be the clue giver and who will be the clue receiver. The clue-giver will be provided a picture. Only the clue-giver can look at the picture. The receiver should not look at the picture.

STEP 2: Using the provided picture, the clue-giver will tell the receiver about the picture, and the clue giver should keep the picture face down until told to look at it.

STEP 3: Only the clue giver can look at the picture and is the ONLY person allowed to speak this first round.

  • The clue receiver is not allowed to speak or ask questions.
  • After about 5 mins or so, stop and discuss with your partner.

STEP 4: Now switch places as to who is the clue giver and receiver.

  • Using a new provided picture, the clue giver will describe it to the receiver.
  • For this round, the receiver is allowed to ask clarifying questions—not engage in any dialogue but ask clarifying questions.
  • Only the clue giver is allowed to see the picture still.
  • After about 5 minutes or so, stop and discuss with your partner.

STEP 5: Have the students select which one will receive and which one will give the clues based on their last two attempts.

  • For this last round, you may have a back-and-forth dialogue with your partner.
  • Each person can talk openly now, though only the giver is allowed to see the picture still.
  • After about 5 mins, stop and prepare to share your thoughts in a large group discussion.

STEP 6: Debrief by discussing which round was “easier, clearer, or best” and why.

  • Discuss the importance of active listening; which round represented active listening and why?


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Developing Human Potential Copyright © 2023 by Gina S. Matkin, Jason Headrick, Hannah M. Sunderman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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