So Much Can Be Said Without Words: Understanding Personal Space

By Darrin Tonsfeldt
The Village Business Institute

Can a conversation take place without saying anything? If you have ever been around a couple who have been with each other for many years you know the answer is “yes.” A glance, the direction of a foot, and the tilt of the head can convey a whole paragraph of information between two people. The same thing happens with the people with whom we work, and sometimes we are not even aware of how much we say to each other without saying a word.

The impact of nonverbal [body language] and paraverbal [tone, volume, rate of speech] communication can be quite profound. Take, for instance, a supervisor who did not pay attention to non-verbal cues and finds out only after a harassment complaint has been made that they have a habit of standing in employees’ personal space. When the complaint was investigated, the supervisor adamantly stated he or she had no intention of creating discomfort or to sexual harass.

The complaining employee said they had made several attempts to convey to their supervisor that their personal space was being invaded. The employee stated they would step back only to be followed, lean away and be leaned into, turn a shoulder and be stepped in front of. The employee admitted he or she had never asked the supervisor to back away though said, “Couldn’t the supervisor just see I was uncomfortable?”

In the end, this particular investigation did not result in a finding of harassment, but what an emotional roller coaster for both the supervisor and employee. It was a wild ride that could have been avoided if the supervisor had been more skilled in the art and science of nonverbal and paraverbal communication. In this case, the supervisor did not have a strong need for lots of personal space, had grown up in an urban setting and in a culture that was used to standing toe-to-toe in conversing. What the supervisor forgot, or did not realize, was that each employee has different personal space needs [proxemics]. The employee was someone from a rural setting who grew up in a culture where an arms length between people in public was seen as close enough. Only very close friends or intimate partners were allowed closer, and then only in private.

The power differential between a supervisor and a supervisee means that the greater responsibility for being aware of, and managing, nonverbal communications rests with the supervisor.

In my work with coaching clients, I focus on three primary areas of personal territory:

  1. Intimate space (0 to 2 feet), which puts people within reach of easily being able to touch each other;
  2. Personal space, sometimes referred to as working space (2 to 3 feet), and
  3. Social space (3 to 5 feet).

I work with my clients to develop an understanding of how culture, population density of where someone was raised or lives, and personal experience can impact and individual’s need for personal territory.

As supervisors become more aware of their employee’s space needs, they are better able to position themselves to be heard. An employee who is stressed out because the boss is standing too close is unlikely to hear much of what is being said.

Personal territory is just one aspect of body language—if you are interested in exploring how to improve your nonverbal and paraverbal communications, feel free to contact me at The Village Business Institute, 1-800-627-8220.

About the blogger
Darrin Tonsfeldt has a background of program administration, employee supervision, and clinical experience, as well as 20 years of experience in organization consulting and planning. He provides oversight of The Village Business Institute, Regional Counseling Services, and Financial Resource Center programs. He also provides consulting services that include strategic planning; career, leadership, management, and executive coaching; corporate training and group facilitation; crisis response in the workplace; and organizational consulting.