In ancient Arabia, eloquence meant status. Arabic is a language rich in shades and shadows; and people competed to weave words with exquisite elegance and beautiful rhythm, skillfully shaping words into works of verbal art.
This is when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born. Although he was never taught to read and write, he had more linguistic skills than anyone. These skills enabled him to transmit difficult concepts clearly, to all levels of audience, and in just a few words.
His wise sayings are ‘Hadith‘ (literally means ‘speech’ in Arabic); they teach timeless guidance to people around the world.
Yet when learning Hadith today, we pay more attention to the study of the exact words of the Prophet Muhammad, while overlooking an important fact which has to do with his use of many non-verbal communication skills to enhance the meanings of the words.
He had an exceptional ability to engage more of our senses than just our ears.
Painting Mental Pictures with Words
When we read Hadith, we will notice that the words draw vivid pictures in our minds, with sights, sounds, smells, and feelings. At the same time, the narrators used descriptive words to give us a complete three-dimensional snapshot of each event.
In this way we could actually ‘see’ in our minds-eye the complete surrounding context; in addition to exactly what the Prophet did with the rest of his body while he spoke.
Instinctively, narrators used their special skill with words to share with us what they saw, heard, felt, imagined and understood – which is how they had actually learned and changed.
There is a precious lesson for us here: When learning from a unique teacher with exceptional communication skills, his audience have to use all their senses to receive meanings and learn lessons.
That is why their behavior was transformed in just a few years to build a brilliant civilization. Perhaps we too need to do the same today, it’s not enough to mechanically memorize and recite the Hadith. What’s more important is to open up to the positive change the words of Prophet Muhammad cause in hearts and minds, and to follow through with practice.
Non-Verbal Cues Blow Your Cover
Communication is about delivering a message to the audience, with maximum accuracy and minimum confusion. Taking into account the correct interpretation of their response, which reflects their perception of the meaning. These basics are essential for exchanging ideas and feelings with others effectively.
Modern research states that successful communicators possess the ability to engage all the senses of their audiences, through using two types of skills in accurate measure.
The first type is the verbal skills, or the spoken language in writing and speech. The second type is the non-verbal skills, which express the ‘unspoken’ context of the words to give them their true meaning, including facial expressions, body language, and vocal qualities such as volume, pitch and speed.
Ironically, successful delivery of a message relies more on non-verbal skills which transmit at least 70% of the meaning, while only 30% is transmitted through words.
Moreover, when the spoken and the unspoken messages contradict, the human brain is programmed to believe the non-verbal cues. For example: If someone says to us: “how nice to see you” but says so with sarcasm, we subconsciously receive the sarcasm and not the seemingly courteous greeting.
The Art of Eloquent Silence
There are training courses to teach us how to interpret people’s unconscious gestures; and at the same time consciously send positive non-verbal signals to others to enhance mutual understanding and encourage effective communication.
Being the exceptional communicator he was, the Prophet Muhammad paid special attention to sending clear and consistent non-verbal messages all the time, even while he was completely silent.
He knew that most of his tradition will be transmitted verbally, so he spoke concisely and clearly; he repeated every important idea 3 times. But in parallel, he used very strong vocal and gesture cues consistent with his words to enhance people’s memorization of what he said to be able to repeat it to others.
His posture was always straight and alert to reflect confidence and strength; he walked briskly to reflect purposefulness, yet his face was always relaxed and peaceful with a poised smile inviting contact and trust.
He gave people his full attention by turning towards them with his whole torso not just his head, which made them feel important and appreciated.
When he got angry, he simply looked away from the person or the event to indicate his disapproval without saying a word.
In a gathering, he sat anywhere not in the center indicating equality; and he always allowed direct contact indicating approachability.
He never looked anyone too long in the face; he used his full palm to point at people instead of pointing his finger to avoid embarrassing them.
Nonetheless, we find the Quran gently rectifying his non-verbal communication in a special situation, sending us a precious lesson:
Even Gestures Count
The Prophet Muhammad was talking to a group of notable tribal leaders attempting to win them over; at that time, a blind man, named Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoum, came to him with some questions.
Trying to focus all his attention on the potential allies, the Prophet frowned in concentration and looked away from Abdullah and towards his audience. The blind man couldn’t see his frowning face or his annoyed body language, yet God blamed His Messenger for transmitting a negative non-verbal message.
He frowned and turned away, Because there came to him the blind man. (80:1-2)
We can’t transmit an emotion sincerely unless our body language is consistent with the words.
Try it yourself: face a mirror and try to sound cheerful saying ‘good morning’ while your face is frowning. You can’t. If you don’t want to hear a frown in your voice, you must actually smile so that your voice would sound friendly.
Now, can you imagine how the voice of the Prophet would have sounded while he was frowning? The blind man would have certainly heard the annoyance, which would generate negative feelings, and create a barrier to effective communication with a sincere friend.
Because of the deep insights gained from this incident, the Prophet always smiled at that blind man saying,
Welcome to whom my Lord has blamed me. (Al-Qurtubi)
Later, Aisha while talking about another woman, pointed with her hand to indicate that she was too short. The Prophet told her:
You have said a word that if mixed with the water of the sea it would spoil it! (Abu Dawud)
He called her simple gesture a ‘word’ and warned her it was so destructive that it could spoil a sea.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
How often do we use facial expressions or gestures publicly in a sarcastic or mocking way, mindless of their destructive effects on our image and on our communication with others?
These stories teach us to mind our body language as much as our verbal language; above all because God is watching, also because others may evaluate us, and even our entire nations or cultures, based on our public conduct.
At any given moment, imagine that someone may be evaluating how you talk to your spouse in a shopping mall; imagine how you treat an elderly on the train, or what you do with your friends in the street.
If you want to be perceived as a nice person, do it all the time; do it with all your being, even when you think no one is looking.
A smile and an open posture are well understood ‘words’ in a universal code.
So even if you don’t speak a word of someone’s language, remember that is only 30 percent of your tools; you still have much more to make sure they ‘listen’ to your friendly thoughts with their eyes.
The Prophet Muhammad was sent to a nation of brilliant orators, people whose main interest was words; yet he added a deeper dimension to eloquent words, which is eloquent silence, where refined actions do the talking.
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)