The Magic of Non-Verbal Communication

When we look at the family of communication types, sometimes verbal communication is over-rated.  In a world where we are usually bombarded with
noise–traffic, construction, one-sided cell phone conversations–silence can be a gift.  Non-verbal communication is often a gentle, yet powerful, alternative– lovers glancing at each other across a crowded room, the gentle touch of a friend when we are upset, the wink shared with a co-conspirator.   I suggest that there is an intimacy in non-verbal communication that can be missing from it’s louder sibling.

An Experience Without Spoken Language

I recently returned from travelling in an Asian country where English is not the first language.  In fact, where I was staying, most people didn’t speak English at all (or very little).  Other than some rudimentary French, I’m uni-lingual.

Often one of the first questions I received when I returned home was how I coped with no ability to speak the language.  My response–very well!  The question is how–especially when we put such store in verbal communication.

Trust and Vulnerability

I believe that the answer lies in both parties taking part in the ‘dialogue’ being willing to experience vulnerability.  It can be scary not to be able to rely on shared language (verbal or written), and when out of our comfort zone there needs to be an element of trust.  This was a lesson that I learned early in the trip.  As a blond, blue-eyed human; others who saw me could safely assume that I wasn’t from their country.  When I spoke, their suspicions were confirmed.

Where does the trust come in? By being open to the help of strangers.  I lost count of the number of times that I was gently guided by a local person who noticed my confusion when looking at a subway or street sign, or the person at the market who helped me to figure out where to find a desired item.  Many may think that I was naive, and I prefer to balance risk with believing the best of people.

Vulnerability?  I suggest that the individuals who were willing to offer help to a stranger who was a guest in their country required them to step out of their comfort zone.  I could have rejected their aid.  My non-lingual attempts to be understood (usual by making hand gestures or animal sounds–when trying to avoid dairy products) could certainly make those trying to help me ask themselves what they had gotten themselves into!  However, what was happening was the magic of non-verbal communication–the human desire to hear and be heard.  Part of being human is our desire to connect with others.

Non-Verbal Communication In Our Daily Lives

Whether we are aware or not, we use non-verbal communication all the time, and in many different ways.  Already mentioned are  examples like the healing touch of a friend, or meeting a lovers gaze, and there are also the small forms such as motioning a driver to turn ahead of us, or waving at someone across the street.

What about facial expressions?  We don’t like something and we grimace.  We notice a happy baby across the cafe and we smile.  Our partner does something to annoy us and we frown.  Reading facial expressions is now in popular culture with shows like as Lie to Me.   Do a google search on body language and you’ll have close to 73 million sites to explore.  Being able to read non-verbal communications isn’t only of interest to poker players!

Where We Get Into Trouble

Non-verbal communication can wreak havoc in our relationships for two reasons–lack of awareness and assumptions.  One is on the sending side and the other on the receiving side.

An example:  Bob and Sarah meet for coffee after work.  This is a first meeting.  Bob has already arrived and Sarah rushes in a few minutes later.  She throws her bag on the floor and flings herself into a chair.  She sits with her arms crossed and leaning back from the table while smiling/grimacing nervously.  Bob, somewhat taken aback, shifts in his seat, and pulls away from Sarah.

If we could look into the inner world of this couple we would know that Sarah is a high-energy person, who uses big physical gestures as she moves about the world.  She is excited and nervous about meeting Bob.  Bob, simply based on Sarah’s physical communication, assumes that Sarah is angry and doesn’t really want to get to know him.  Sarah’s lack of awareness of how her gestures may be perceived (she wonders why people often ask her if something is wrong), combined with the stories that Bob is telling himself about Sarah may contribute to this being their first and last meeting.

Lack of awareness and making assumptions are more common than you think.  We tell ourselves stories all the time–he doesn’t like me because he pouted when he walked in the room, but what if his chin was itchy?.  She is feeling sad because she is walking slowly, but perhaps she hurt her knee.

What Can We Do?

This is where non-verbal communication’s sibling comes in.  Ask!  “You look angry.  Is everything ok?”   “You don’t seem to be your usual self, what’s up?”  When we take the time to question our assumptions we connect with others–and isn’t that what communication (both verbal and non-verbal) all about?

And now…one of the masters of non-verbal communication–Charlie Chaplin.  Enjoy!