New Research: Nonverbal Communication

Xiao-Ping Chen explores the environmental cues we rely on to understand each other.

At the University of Washington Foster School of Business, Professor Xiao-Ping Chen listens to what isn’t being said. Her research highlights the importance of nonverbal communication, which can be especially challenging across cultures.

In her new book, What Isn’t Being Said: Culture and Communication at Work, Chen refers to nonverbal communication as “a secret code” that is essential to master. Together with her co-authors, Chen explores the context of nonverbal communication cues and shares valuable takeaways for anyone navigating business communication.

Nonverbal communication cues in the workplace

“Nonverbal communication matters,” explains Chen. “The information in your message is important, but the context of how you deliver the message may be even more critical.”

“Leaders communicate nonverbally in many ways,” Chen continues. “Consider their body language, whether they show up on time, and if they smile and shake hands. These nonverbal communication forms can impact how their message is received, not to mention performance.”

What Isn’t Being Said: Culture and Communication at Work explores the environmental cues we rely on to understand each other. Chen describes each as a layer that forms your nonverbal communication style:

  • Message context: Is your message direct or indirect? Is it simple or subtle?
  • Relationship context: Do you adapt your style to the people you’re communicating with?
  • Time context: Do you strictly stick to a schedule throughout the day, or do you allow flexibility to make time for others?
  • Space context: What facial expressions and body language do you use? How do you occupy the physical space around you?

Chen explains that there is risk in assuming someone is quiet because they have nothing to contribute, “Your business colleague may be quiet because you haven’t invited them to speak and they don’t want to give offense. For them, it would be inappropriate to interject or interrupt. Alternatively, your take-charge attitude could be perceived as rude by others.”

Teaching nonverbal communication in the MBA classroom

In the Foster MBA classroom, Chen brings her research into nonverbal communication to life.

“In my MBA class, I create scenarios in which different teams must interact with each other using assigned communication styles,” she explains. “We ask students to role-play an executive team either from an alpha culture or a beta culture that has very different nonverbal communication styles. They don’t get to choose. We mimic the experience of collective negotiation between the alpha team and beta team. Almost always, there are disagreements and misunderstandings, even though the project is fabricated. We then step back and explore what went wrong, and where we misread nonverbal cues. It’s an eye-opener.”

Chen’s advice to managers, no matter where they do business, is to:

1. Be prepared to be flexible and adapt your communication style to that of your team; watch and learn.

2. Practice active listening and build time for listening to others into meetings. Pay attention to who isn’t speaking and give them designated time to voice.

Foster MBA students carry these lessons forward into careers spanning the globe. Recently, one Foster MBA grad reached out to Chen to share their experience.

“A former Foster MBA student applied this experiential learning project in business,” Chen recalls. “He was meeting a client from Japan. Their business relationship was difficult and tense. Before the meeting, he was nervous and thought hard about how he would conduct the meeting. Then he remembered his role in the beta team where they behaved collectively, unemotionally, politely and patiently, exchanging pleasantries before talking business. Although at the time he felt uncomfortable playing the role, it became a lightbulb moment! So, he began the meeting by asking his client about his trip and hotel stay, and about his family and community. He listened. They spent 20 minutes connecting and then segued into the deal. Not only did this approach smooth over tensions, it resulted in an agreement that met both party’s needs.”

Xiao-Ping Chen’s research interests include cooperation and competition in social dilemmas, teamwork and leadership, entrepreneur passion, Chinese guanxi, and cross-cultural communication and management.
Xiao-Ping Chen’s research interests include cooperation and competition in social dilemmas, teamwork and leadership, and cross-cultural communication and management.

About Xiao-Ping Chen

Xiao-Ping Chen is Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair and Professor of Management in the Foster School of Business. She is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Management (AOM), American Psychological Association (APA), and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Chen is Editor-in-Chief of Management and Organization Review, the flagship journal of the International Association for Chinese Management Research (IACMR). She is also the founding editor and current Executive Editor of Management Insights, a bilingual (Chinese and English) magazine for business educators and practitioners. Chen’s research interests include cooperation and competition in social dilemmas, teamwork and leadership, entrepreneur passion, Chinese guanxi, and cross-cultural communication and management.

What Isn’t Being Said: Culture and Communication at Work by Wendi L. Adair, Nancy R. Buchan, Xiao-Ping Chen, and Leigh Anne Liu is part of the Springer Series in Emerging Cultural Perspectives in Work, Organizational, and Personnel Studies.