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?!
Steering Versus Fueling
By Dan Fox, LPC
Let’s use the metaphor of life as a car. If your daughter’s life was a car, when she’s little, it’s your job to steer. We’ve got to keep them safe, provide a rational structure, help them when they are stuck emotionally or with one of life’s many challenges. Still, by the time they are truly adults, they need to be able to steer their own car, to pick a destination and know how to get there, to stay safe despite the dangers of the road, to keep their car running in a healthy way. By the time your daughter is an adult, your days of steering are long over. Your role has changed. It’s time to focus on fueling.
Steering is trying to control. Steering is checking to make sure that they’ve made a doctor’s appointment. Steering is giving them money if they get good grades. When you call with a list of concerns that you hope to make them aware of, that’s steering too. So is telling them that you won’t pay for any more classes if they fail again.
Steering isn’t inherently bad; but as your child gets older, it just does more to support perpetual adolescence than to support a launch towards adulthood. And if you are like many parents, you know from hard earned experience that it’s hard to steer someone else’s life very effectively.
When we steer older adolescents, the tendency is for our kids to feel a little judged or a little inadequate. It’s like we don’t trust them to be able to handle life’s challenges. Or we create conflict. We come across as being too alarmist or a nag. We can end up unsure whether or not we got our point across, and whether or not it was worth it even if we did.
Rather than trying to figure out how best to steer, the parent journey at this life stage is more about how to fuel. If you are like many parents, sometimes contact with your son or daughter is strained. To fuel is to be able to have contact with them where they leave less stressed or anxious, not more. Fueling is about believing in them, keeping the faith in whom they are and whom they will become, even if they don’t feel confident. Fueling is about being able to hang out and enjoy the time together, without any particular agenda. If they don’t call you back, if they give one-word answers, if you feel like you’re being avoided, let’s face it – these are all signs that despite our best intentions, they are not feeling fueled.
Most parents do a pretty good job of fueling. But at this life stage, it’s worth becoming an expert fueler. Two skills to work on: (1) being able to identify your interactions as either fueling or steering, and (2) deliberately practicing communication that fuels rather than steers.
A new school year presents a new opportunity to develop a game plan for the academic year that yields positive results for your student(s) as well as your family. Quite often, a stressor for one family member tends to have an impact on everyone; a parent’s new job, a family member struggling with emotional challenges, a sibling leaving home for college, and yes, a child starting the school year. More than many of us realize, children often feel apprehensive regarding the increased expectations that come with a new grade level, getting back into the habit of getting up early, studying for tests, and doing homework. The best way to deal with an impending stressor is preemptively. Consider these strategies:
• Instead of waiting for the inevitable meltdown, create an opportunity for the family to discuss the challenges the school year brings and how family members can support each other.
• Model checking-in at the dinner table regarding your week (trying to focus on accomplishments as well as challenges) and encourage other family members to do so as well. Just being able to vent about school stress can help your child reduce it.
• Frequently acknowledge what’s going right. Remember that it’s human nature to focus on the negative and take the positive for granted.
• Practice good self-care: Find healthy ways to reduce your own stress. Otherwise, you won’t have much patience for anyone else’s.
• Clarify your priorities: School is very important, but not as important as the parent-child relationship. Don’t let school conflicts create a rift between you and your child.
• Have a few laughs! Never underestimate the many benefits of making the time to have fun as a family. In our busy world, it may not happen if we don’t plan on it.
• If your child seems to be struggling academically, consider ruling out underlying emotional/learning issues before assuming it’s all about motivation. A good place to start is with your child’s classroom teacher.
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.
Q; How can I help my adolescent have a fun, productive, and safe summer?
A: Summers can be a unique challenge for parents of adolescents. On the one hand we want to honor their desire for making more of their own decisions regarding summer activities, as the shift to independence is a key developmental task for adolescents. On the other hand, we still need to encourage healthy choices and ensure that their summer includes opportunities to enhance their social and emotional development.
When adolescents are bored and have nothing productive to do, this often leads to an increase in engagement in a wide range of at-risk behaviors. Specific concerns include experimentation with drugs and alcohol, engaging in risky behaviors that can result in physical injury, and unsafe sexual behavior. Research has shown us that when adolescents under the age of 15 experiment with drugs and/or alcohol, their risk of developing addiction and/or psychiatric issues later in life significantly increases. We also know that summers can often represent a shift in new and increased experimentation with drugs and alcohol for young adolescents. It is important to strike a balance between well deserved down time and participation in fun, structured activities.
Consider a respectful, collaborative discussion with your adolescent about summer plans and activities. Let them know that while you want to see them doing some structured activities, it is important that they feel good about what those specific activities may be. Take advantage of the activity information in this month’s Thrive newsletter as a springboard for these discussions. Whether it’s getting a job, recreational activities with the family, participating in an art class, signing-up for a one-week camp, or working on home projects with Mom and/or Dad (and getting paid?), try to create a balance of down time and structured activities. Periodically checking in with them over the summer can also be beneficial.
Helping your adolescent proactively develop an effective summer plan now will be more effective than waiting until problems emerge over the summer and attempting to deal with them reactively.
Q: What’s a parent to do? Your child confides in you about a teacher’s behavior in the classroom, but expects you to keep silent about comments/actions that are demeaning, hurtful, even abusive.
How does one bridge not wanting to speak forth for fear of reprisal on a child already stressed and scared — against feeling the need to communicate with administrators, who should be made aware of what’s happening in the classroom. How do we advocate our children’s concerns without creating conflicts or damaging relationships?
Signed, Between a rock and a hard place
A: There are certain factors that must first be considered before deciding on a plan of action. These include: accuracy of information reported, severity of reported misconduct by the teacher, and the child’s age. Based on these factors let’s consider some scenarios and possible responses:
If we believe that the information is accurate and the misconduct severe, it is important that it be addressed. Consider meeting with the teacher first and give your child the option to attend (the older the child, the more appropriate the invitation). If this meeting is unsatisfactory, request a meeting with the principal, who should decide whether or not to invite the teacher to this initial meeting. Continue working with the principal until a mutually agreed upon plan of action is developed. While you can then go beyond the principal, if you have been reasonable it is unlikely that this will be necessary.
If the situation is less clear and/or the misconduct is not severe, first make sure you’re your child feels heard and supported. After allowing your child to fully share his/her thoughts and feelings, brainstorm possible next steps together. Discuss options (e.g. talking with the teacher, talking with the principal, writing the teacher a note, trying not to let the teacher’s style be as upsetting, promising to let you know if it happens again, etc.) and empower your child with the final say on what approach to use (the older the child, the more appropriate the empowerment). If these issues continue, consider the recommendations as outlined above.
It is also important to remember that our children will need to effectively deal with a variety of teachers, some more challenging than others, throughout their educational career. If the circumstances are not severe, helping children learn how to deal with these issues on their own (especially as they get older) will help them deal more effectively with challenging people in other areas of their lives as well.