AAT banner

Voices of the Global Community


Danielle Hartman, University of Colorado Boulder 

Academic advisor training varies widely from institution to institution and department to department within each institution, though some commonalities of course exist such as FERPA and degree requirements. How advisors interact with students and methodologies utilized vary and are often only briefly covered during training, placing the burden of learning and developing the skills needed to connect and communicate effectively with students on the advisor through trial and error. A few years ago, professional development could easily be done during slower periods, but few advisors now find they have slower times of the year anymore. The increased demand on advisors from institutions and students, the lack of time to devote to rest, and the challenges of completing administrative duties regularly lead to increased advisor burnout and lack of prioritizing professional development to instead meet assigned quantitative metrics.

The communication and relationship building advisors often do find in their training tends to be brief, focusing on verbal communication or advising theories. However, nonverbal communication accounts for far more than verbal. Behavioral psychologist, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, conducted extensive research and found that only 7% of communication happens through words, 38% through tone, and 55% through body language (Michail, 2020)! This often neglected yet vital part of advisor training appears in how advisors read students during appointments. Advisors learn to pick up on students’ nonverbal cues and consciously understand many: avoiding eye contact, slouching, crossed arms, and leaning forward with assertive energy. But what does advisor nonverbal communication say to students? Advisors often focus more on what they say through words and tone alone. Students report through advising surveys or anecdotes that they do not find an advisor helpful or that their advisor does not care about them, but this is often untrue. One possible cause lies in a lack of nonverbal communication training and the unconscious ability to read that part of communication better than one realizes.

Increased training and awareness in nonverbal communication improves advisors’ ability to engage with students, creates a sense of trust more effectively, and increases the student’s sense of mattering. “Institutions that focus on mattering and greater student involvement will be more successful in creating campuses where students are motivated to learn, where their retention is high, and ultimately where their institutional loyalty for the short- and long-term future is ensured” (Schlossberg, 1989, p. 15). Schlossberg’s theory of Marginality and Mattering serves as the theoretical framework through which an advisor can use various movement theories to put it into action.

Improving nonverbal communication skills particularly impacts historically marginalized students who often feel less connected and supported. Marginalized students often pick up on the more subtle forms of nonverbal communication, even at the subconscious level, as they code switch frequently and therefore, are more attuned and aware even if only at the subconscious level, to nonverbal communication. Schlossberg (1989) highlights this with bicultural students, because for them, “marginality is a way of life. . . identif[ying] with two cultures simultaneously” (p. 7). She further asserts that “There is a critical need to help people deal with marginality so that they will eventually matter” (p. 13). Advisors find their role positioned to do just that.

With college enrollments declining for a variety of reasons, retention has become a bigger priority than in the past. Universities also seek to increase the diversity of their student body through recruitment efforts but can often neglect widespread efforts to retain those students once they arrive on campus. Increasing the number of transfer students has also become a priority, particularly for schools with lower transfer student numbers, to maintain or rebound from lower first-year student enrollments, students transferring out, and stop-outs. Transfer students often struggle to connect and find their place, particularly if they start during a spring semester.

Nonverbal communication possesses many complex and nuanced components. The next section covers two of Toby Wisher’s theories: states of energy and gesture lines. For further exploration in nonverbal communication, an advisor can explore the 7 States of Tension, Laban’s movement theory, and proximity (distance between two people). Advisors fortunately do have many areas of which they are likely already consciously aware: eye contact, clothing, crossed arms. All nonverbal communication areas interconnect to provide the listener additional information into what one says, feels, and thinks. It relates the subtext of verbal communication to the listener whether one means to do so intentionally or not. “If what you do with your body is inconsistent with what you say, your listeners will tend to believe your body language more than your words” (Gamble & Gamble, 2021, p. 276).

Understanding Energy States

Energy states influence one’s nonverbal communication. Regardless of what one’s energy level is, the expression of it comes in two different forms: mono or stereo state. “Mono is when the physical tension is clearly matched by the intention . . . the body energy is in sync with the brain’s energy” and stereo appears when the internal and external energies are at odds or do not match (Wilsher, 2007, p. 52). The challenge of stereo state lies in this conflict, while mono state has no conflict between the internal and external states. Neither expression of the energy is better than the other.

Frequently one actively chooses stereo state. Perhaps something in an advisor’s personal life unsettles them and they do not want that negative energy present in conversations with students or colleagues. Maybe they just got a great piece of news, but the student with them is struggling; advisors would not want their excitement to leave the student feeling dismissed. When one elects to use stereo state, they must be aware that no matter how hard one tries, the internal energy state comes out in small and subtle ways through nonverbal communication. One cannot completely hide their internal energy. Advisors can minimize its expression though through two key points: 1) being aware of this and 2) trying to not overcompensate. One can easily overcompensate, particularly when the internal state lies in a more negative place. When noticing this in one’s own conversations, they can take a breath and reset the external energy expression.

Understanding Gesture Lines

One way people express energy states comes through gesture lines. When in stereo state, the internal expression often sneaks in through gesture lines as they connect to their energy and emotions. Gestures are more than just how one uses their hands and arms. It can be a head tilt or leaning forward or back. Gesture lines focus mostly on arm and hand movements. Gesture lines are where on the body the gesture originates from. There are five lines: hips, stomach, chest, face, and over the head. “In real life we don’t think about these lines but they happen anyway, part of our natural body language that happens without us thinking about it when we speak” (Wilsher, 2007, p. 49). Students and advisors pick up on these subconsciously. Each line carries its own meaning.

  • Hip line: gestures originating from the hip line communicate the information as unimportant with little investment in the topic. This line requires the least amount of physical energy to use. One can easily get trapped here when tired or distracted. When sitting, these gestures tend to remain small, in one’s lap, harder to see, and unseen when meeting with a student virtually. It can leave a student feeling unimportant.
  • Stomach line: often connotates truth, warmth, with soft, flowing movement maternal-like support, and with hard, forceful movement desperate or yearning for the truth. This line often remains unseen though during virtual appointments.
  • Chest line: conveys a personal, heartfelt, or pleading quality given its proximity to the heart. It carries more energy than the first two lines and thus more emotion and investment regarding the topic. This and the stomach line are typically best suited for in-person appointments. When meeting with students virtually, students see the chest line easiest which can create a sense of welcome and care even online.
  • Face line: carries more immediate and tactile weight. It requires more energy than any of the previous lines. Thus, heightened emotions often come with its use.
  • Over the head line: requires the most energy and conveys intense emotions. One frequently uses this line when excited, angry, or exasperated. Using this gesture line in a typical advising appointment could easily intimidate or startle a student. It may escalate an already tenuous conversation with an upset student or when a student is feeling scared and nervous, make the appointment feel less safe. Alternatively, this may be the perfect gesture line to celebrate a student’s success.

As each gesture line moves up the body, it requires more physical energy and brings with it an increased emotional connection. As a part of the body, gesture lines and the energy behind them influence the vocal cords. In using gesture lines during a conversation, moving from one line to another, one’s pacing, pitch, and tone adjust as well without consciously having to do it. Varying gesture lines while speaking helps to avoid being monotoned and have better vocal variety thereby improving the 38% of communication expressed through tone alone. Being monotone often finds itself associated with boredom, tiredness, and a lack of interest from the speaker. Wilsher’s text, The Mask Handbook: A Practical Guide (2007), has several exercises to develop and understand these principles in action. The exercises, while can be done alone for the most part, are more effective when done with a partner or small group.

In another impactful exploration on the influence of body language, Amy Cuddy explores posture’s impact on how one feels about themself in her TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are” (2012). Cuddy discusses how power posing improves one’s confidence by increasing and reducing certain hormones. As advisors this can be particularly beneficial to use before student appointments. When advisors appear more confident in appointments they can increase students’ trust, particularly in a first meeting. This power posing exercise draws its power also in that one can share this information with students, those from marginalized populations or who are working through doubt and low confidence, to help them as well.

The people who can use it the most, are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy, and two minutes and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life. (Cuddy, 2012)

Academic advisors must intentionally connect their verbal and nonverbal communication. Students subconsciously pick up on this information, particularly those from marginalized populations who already struggle with a sense of belonging and mattering. With higher education struggling with budgetary demands, this offers a low-cost way to make change that ultimately impacts students’ success, graduation, and retention rates. When students feel they matter, they seek campus support more frequently and challenge themselves. They share more with their advisor creating a stronger relationship where the advisor can provide them with more tailored support, resources, and avenues to achieving goals. Yes, this is one more thing advisors must add to already overburdened demands, but it yields big payoffs.


Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are [Video]. TEDGlobal. https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_ar e/c

Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2021). The public speaking handbook (3rd ed.). Sage Publications.

Michail, J. (2020, August 24). Strong nonverbal skills matter now more than ever in this ‘new normal’. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/08/24/strong-nonverbal-skills-matter-now-more-than-ever-in-this-new-normal/?sh=357af6425c61

Schlossberg, N. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. New Directions for Student Services, 1989(48), 5–15. https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.37119894803

Wilsher, T. (2007). The mask handbook: A practical guide. Routledge.


There are currently no comments, be the first to post one!

Post Comment

Only registered users may post comments.
Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.