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Nonverbal Communication in Relationships

Shakespeare said it best: "The eyes are the windows to the soul." Just looking at the picture of this little girl tells us a lot about her mood. To say the least, she is probably angry. Her arms are folded in a way that transmits defiance and stubbornness. We can't know everything from the picture but it is clear that she is not happy.0972386001563031648.jpg

We tend to think of communication as being verbal. I say something, you respond and the conversation continues. However, words are but a small part of the total communication process. Nonverbal communication is sometimes referred to as "body language." It plays a huge role in the way all of us try to understand what others are attempting to let us know. In other words, we do not just hear the words but we see such things as gestures, facial expressions, posture and we hear tones of voice, intonations and more. 

It is an interesting study in human nature and communication to watch subway riders traveling in the New York City Subway System. Many people keep their heads down, whether standing or sitting. They are either reading a newspaper, book or magazine. Some, with their heads up, are looking at the ads posted above the seats that can be seen by either side of the aisle in the train car. Yet others appear to stare into the distance, giving the appearance of being lost in thought. What most people are working hard to do is avoid eye contact with strangers. It has often been said that if two men peer into one another's eyes it's an invitation to fight while if a man and woman do the same it's an invitation to meet and start a romantic relationship. Ultimately, it is, consciously or unconsciously, dangerous to stare at another individual.

As a psychotherapist observing and using the nonverbal behavior of the client can be very useful. The following are hypothetical cases: For example, a client enters the office, sits with their legs crossed and their arms folded. They then proceed to report that everything since the last session has been good. When I point out that their arms and legs are crossed it provides the client with an opportunity to admit that they wanted to hide an embarrassing episode they went through during the last week. This is a person who has undergone a lot of verbal abuse during his childhood and now in his marriage. It is painful for him to admit to another experience that was damaging to his self-esteem. However, after fully discussing the event he feels much better after finishing the session.

Another example is a new set of clients, a husband, and wife who are starting marriage therapy for the first time. What is immediately noticeable is that they sit at opposite ends of the couch. From their onwards, they address their comments to me without ever looking at each other. The room is filled with anger and no words are necessary to convey the pervasive sense of hostility that exists between the two of them. 

In another example, a young married couple enters the session for the first time, sit as close as possible to each other and, during their initial session as well as all those following, speak to each other and me not only with words but by affectionately touching one another's arms. What is so interesting is that his complaint is not getting enough affection and her complaint is that it is never satisfied and there is never enough.

In my own case, my maternal grandmother, with whom we grew up while our mother was at work, would say things like, "I hate you." It was understood that this was her way of conveying love. However, she was fully capable and was hateful in her behavior towards many people. Her verbal communication carried a lot of truth as well as a lot of nonverbal communication. It always felt good when my mother arrived home from work. Just to help the reader understand, our mother was divorced and, therefore, a single parent. All of us lived in our maternal grandparent's home and that was often very difficult. 

It is important for the therapist and clients to make good use of nonverbal behaviors. In fact, it is these nonverbal behaviors that can and do complicate all kinds of relationships motivating visits to the psychotherapy office. At work, within a family setting, between lovers and married people, words may be meant to convey one meaning but tones of voice, facial expressions, and all the other nonverbal forms of body language convey an altogether different message.

Dr. Schwartz is available for consultation and psychotherapy and can be reached through his website, http://www.allanschwartztherapy.net and through Email at [email protected] I am also available by telephone at 720-470-2028 


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