The value and importance of understanding non-verbal communication
By Rachael Bonaiuto, LPC
”The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” –Peter F. Drucker
Why Non-Verbal Communication?
The World English Dictionary defines nonverbal communication as “those aspects of communication, such as gestures and facial expressions, that do not involve verbal communication but which may include nonverbal aspects of speech itself”. There are popular statistics asserting that most communication (75%-90%) is nonverbal and that nonverbal behavior is the most crucial aspect of communication. And wholesome communication, as you probably already know from personal experience, defines the health of so many of your relationships. Further, healthy relationships are the pillars to a quality life with increased joy, abundance, health, and happiness.
So why don’t you pay more attention to your body language, your posture and gestures, your tone of voice, eye contact and somatic patterning? We live in a culture that places so much value on the spoken and written word, on what you say and how you articulate your experience. If it’s true that what we pay attention to grows, and conversely, what we don’t pay attention to dies away, it is important to acknowledge, attend to, and develop our non-verbal communication skills in order to engage in thriving relationships with our children, partners, co-workers, friends and fellow citizens. So, how do you begin to tune into your non-verbal communications and what impact will it have on your life?
”The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein
How do you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
Paying Attention and Practicing are two foundational elements for your non-verbal communication development. From wherever you are in this very moment, read the following words and then pause – noticing right now: how you are sitting, the pace, rhythm and quality of your breath, the angle of your spine, the location of your feet and the direction of your gaze. Don’t feel like you need to change any of these things, in any way, just simply notice. As you survey and take stock, you are paying attention. The practicing part comes in the frequency and diligence with which you take stock, survey and notice your body. Do it often – as you are driving your child to school, standing in line at the bank, talking to a friend in need, asking for something you want, ordering your morning coffee, telling someone you love them – what is your body doing? What are you communicating without words?
Below are a few areas to identify, pay attention to and engage in practice. Let’s take an example of an everyday interaction – sitting at the dinner table with your family – and examine these various aspects of non-verbal communication.
Posture – How are you sitting at the table? Where are your elbows and hands? Is your spine upright or are you slouching? Are you facing the other family members at the table or are you positioned away from them in some way? Do you feel grounded? Are your feet on the floor? Is your crown open toward the sky? Are you ‘awake’ in your posture?
Proxemics (Personal Space) – Where are you in relationship to the others at the table? Have you distanced yourself in a way that feels appropriate? Are you invading another’s space? Do you feel that someone is too close to you? Are you wishing you were a bit closer or further away? Is it okay to move your positioning? Are you ‘awake’ in your personal space?
Gestures – How are you expressing yourself? Are you using your hands to say something that you are not saying with words? Have you tilted your head in a way that either affirms or denies someone else’s experience? Are you engaging or disengaging in conversation with your movements? Are you ‘awake’ in your gestures?
Facial expressions – There are some 43 muscles in the face and we are often using them in ways that we are not aware of. What are your eyes saying? Did your lip turn up or curl down when something was shared? What direction are you tilting your nose and chin? What are you communicating with your face as you respond to your environment? Are you ‘awake’ in your facial expressions?
Paralinguistics: tone of voice, volume, inflection, pitch – Have you ever experienced something that someone said as incongruent with the actual words they spoke? What is your tone of voice expressing when you ask about your lover’s day? How is your inflection when you question your child’s participation in a school activity? Are you speaking loudly about something that makes you nervous? Are you ‘awake’ in your voice?
Eye Gaze and Contact – So much is communicated through the eyes. Have you made eye contact with your family members during dinner? Are you scolding someone with your gaze? Are you paying attention with your eyes? Have you been looking at your feet throughout the entire meal? Or gazing up at the ceiling? Are you ‘awake’ in your eyes?
Somatic Patterns – We all have somatic patterns that are often unconscious, communicating something that we are unaware of. Are you twirling your hair while your husband talks about his work day, appearing bored or disinterested? Are you nodding as your child shares about his science test? Do you rub your eyes when sadness begins to creep in, trying to conceal an emotion? Are you ‘awake’ in your body patterns?
Appearance – How we appear communicates so much to others, often without our cognizant choice. Did you come to dinner in your pajamas? Have you changed into something comfortable or perhaps loosened your tie and taken off your shoes? Have you spent the entire dinner looking at your phone? Is the hat you are wearing covering your face? Are you showing through your appearance respect, presence, disapproval, disinterest? Are you ‘awake’ in your appearance?
”What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
What will improve as you develop your Non-Verbal Communication Skills?
As you imagine paying attention to and practicing your non-verbal communication skills, you might also imagine aspects of your life changing for the better. Among other things that will surprise, delight and inspire you, you will develop healthy, clear boundaries, enhance intimacy, deepen connections, communicate feelings and needs, and establish safety and trust. And who wouldn’t want these healthy upgrades improving our relationships and increasing our quality of life?!
Q: Some parents I know seem in a rush to have their children go on medication for things like depression and hyperactivity. What should parents do before making the jump to medication?
A: For psychological disorders, a thoughtful and accurate diagnosis is key to developing an effective treatment plan. What elementary child does not have occasional concentration problems in class? Does this mean that he/she has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Similarly what adolescent isn’t moody from time to time? Do we diagnosis him/her with Bipolar Disorder? Many mental health professionals would agree that these two disorders are highly over diagnosed in children and adolescents. This is a significant concern because both ADHD and Bipolar Disorder are typically treated with strong psychoactive drugs. Once diagnosed, patients may be on these drugs for the rest of their lives.
The accuracy of a diagnosis is a function of gathering information from multiple sources and thoughtfully ruling out other variables that may better explain the symptoms. For example poor concentration is also a symptom of depression. Some would argue that mood swings are a normal function of hormonal changes in adolescence. While it can be costly, considering formal testing by a trained psychologist can dramatically increase our objective data and thus increase the accuracy of our diagnosis. There are specific psychometric tests that can assess attention impairment (e.g. the TOVA), mood disorders (the MMPI), and other psychological conditions. A comprehensive psychological evaluation would include a battery of tests; an analysis of the child’s medical, family, educational, and social history; as well as surveying parents, teachers and children, in order to get a convergence of multiple data points as to the source(s) of the presenting problem. In the end the cost of a thorough psychological evaluation may be far less than the impact of an incorrect diagnosis.
When accurately diagnosed and treated, medications can prove to be a great blessing in treating conditions like ADHD and Bipolar Disorder. We just want to do everything we can to be sure of the root cause, which allows us a much better chance of developing a treatment plan to address it.
By Dr. Jan Hittelman
“My 13-year-old daughter is a cutter. She also smokes. I have done everything I can to stop her, but she did it again last night and I took her to the emergency room. On the way home, I asked her what I could do to help her stop cutting. She said if I would let her smoke cigarettes at home, that would help, because smoking soothes her and helps alleviate her need to cut.”
“What should I do?”
Cutting and cigarette smoking share a common thread; both are unhealthy ways to deal with negative emotions. While all of us struggle with feelings like sadness, anger, and anxiety, we each deal with our feelings very differently. Some adolescents have tremendous difficulty experiencing and working through their negative emotions and are limited to self-harm behaviors as a maladaptive coping mechanism. It is difficult for most of us to understand, but for some individuals cutting can seemingly provide their only source of relief and often develops into an addictive behavior that is very difficult to stop.
Common misconceptions regarding cutting are that it is a suicidal gesture and/or attention-seeking behavior. Those that cut use it as “a way to survive” and are usually not looking to kill themselves. Given how effectively they hide their scars by wearing long sleeves and purposely cutting in areas that are generally under clothing, this is clearly not an attention-seeking behavior. Rather, cutting is a desperate behavior that demands our attention.
Self-harm behaviors are a serious indicator that the individual needs professional help. It is important that the mental health professional have expertise in not only treating adolescents but also self-harm behaviors. Common co-occurring issues that also need to be treated or ruled-out include: history of sexual abuse, family dysfunction, risky sexual behavior and substance abuse.
Finding the right therapist for your daughter, who can help her learn how to deal with negative emotions in a more effective way and thereby reduce (and eventually extinguish) her self-harm behaviors (including cigarette smoking), would be the critical next step.
By Dr. Jan Hittelman
Q: How do I get my unwilling teenager to talk to someone, such as a therapist?
Sign me, Concerned Mom
A: The pivotal challenge in creating getting your teen to meet with a counselor is getting them to willingly attend the initial session. Who wouldn’t be uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing personal information with a complete stranger? Particularly when you know you’re “not crazy,” don’t particularly like the idea and are other-referred (aka, dragged in by your parent). Luckily, there are steps that you can take that will greatly increase your chances of success:
Do your homework. A common mistake is to pick a random therapist, have it not work out, and have your teen more resistant than ever to see “another shrink.” Make sure that the therapist you go to is licensed and experienced. You can check a psychotherapist’s license status online at: www.doradls.state.co.us/alison.php. Next, try to make sure that he/she has experience working successfully with adolescents. You can accomplish this by getting recommendations from friends, coworkers or community professionals (your pediatrician, school personnel-guidance counselors, school interventionists, etc.). In addition, don’t be reluctant to first interview the therapist over the phone or in person. Ask about their experience working with adolescents and how they would approach treating someone with symptoms like your child is exhibiting. Does this seem like someone your teen could relate to?
Empower your teen. It is important to give your teen a voice in the decision making whenever possible. After explaining why you feel that talking to someone is important, consider sharing the decision making with him or her. For example, say: “While you need to go to this initial appointment, we can talk together afterward to decide together if continuing would be a good idea.” Any effort to respect his voice in the decision-making process will increase his investment and eventual benefit.
Provide him with an out. One reason that teens (and others) resist the idea of counseling is that there is a concern that it may go on forever. During the initial meeting, I suggest to parents that they make an agreement with their teen to attend four to six additional sessions. If he doesn’t feel that it’s worth his time and (his parents’) money, he can rethink it at that point. That doesn’t necessarily mean stop altogether, but reevaluate it.
Reinforce his efforts. Along the way, make sure to let your teen know that you’re proud of his efforts. This would ideally start with that initial session and continue throughout treatment.
By Dr. Jan Hittelman
Is anyone really ready to be a parent? There’s a shared experience among most new parents; a sense of disbelief that the hospital staff will simply let you walk out with a newborn child. It’s like giving a set of car keys to someone who hasn’t learned how to drive. Yet our parenting has a profound impact not only on our children’s development but also on our own. The challenges of parenthood provide us with an opportunity to grow as individuals. Like our children, we also have developmental tasks. From the first moment, we have no option but to be role models. How and what we model is totally up to us. The same is true of the relationships we develop with our children. If our primary focus is disciplining undesirable behavior, then our long-term relationship with our children will be negatively impacted. It takes conscious effort to focus more on the positive within our children and within ourselves. This brings us back to the developmental task of parenting. Our own level of emotional development impacts the relationship we develop with our children. The more emotional, social, and behavioral issues that we are struggling with, the less capable we will be to develop a healthy relationship with our child (or others). Thus parenting provides us with the opportunity to mature and address issues that we may have previously avoided. But the choice is ours. If we choose not to deal with our own anger problems, for example, we will likely have a higher level of conflict with our already challenging adolescent. If we regularly drink alcohol, our ability to positively impact our child’s view on substance abuse may be compromised. Sometimes our toughest challenge as parents is not our children’s behavior, but our own.
As parents it’s natural to focus on and correct children’s behavior. We rarely consider, however, how our own day-to-day behavior impacts that of our children. Children are extremely sensitive to their parents’ subtle moods, actions, and words. They internalize these characteristics as they develop their own identity and approach to the world. Of course our children bring their own emotional, behavioral, and social issues, in addition to what they learn from us and others. But even if they have significant issues from birth that are uniquely their own, our behavior will still have a significant impact.
Consider channeling your desire to be a good parent into taking better care of yourself by identifying and addressing your own issues and challenges. The better adjusted and happier you are, the healthier your parent-child relationship will be.