Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Watch Your Language -Your Body Language!

December 27, 1999

What do you believe – a person’s words, their tone of voice or their body language? Research findings show that if there is a discrepancy between the various modes of communication, 7 percent rely on the words, 38 percent rely on the tone of voice, and 55 percent rely on body language. If the three modes of communication match up and are congruent, belief in words rises to about 33 percent while belief in tone of voice and body language drop to about 33 percent each.

Body language. Body language means hand gestures, body posture, openness of the arms, lean of the body, facial expressions, tilt of the head, and other signals. It is a subtle nonverbal language. Learned along with verbal language from infancy, it is a trustworthy guide to meaning.

"Look in to the face of the person to whom you are speaking if you wish to know his real sentiments, for he can command his words more easily than his countenance." – Chesterfield

In teaching couples listening skills, I notice their general turning toward or turning away from each other during conflict. I also notice their smile, open posture, eye contact, forward lean of their body, compassionate touch at key moments, space between them, and head nods that show close attention. When there is exceptional rapport, even body movements become synchronous.

Sometimes a particular individual may be have mastered the basic skills of listening to the words and even mechanically reflecting the meaning back, but their body language communicates disbelief, disinterest and disapproval of what they are hearing.

The eyes are another key to communicating – a veritable window to the soul. Eyes can show acceptance or rejection, love or hostility, hope or despair, gratitude or indifference, admiration or contempt, threat or safety – the whole gamut of human emotion. Animals know this. If they want to know about human intention, they look at people right in the eyes.

"An eye can threaten like a loaded pistol, or can insult, like a hissing or kicking; or in an altered mood, can, by beams of kindness, make the heart dance with joy." - Emerson

Tone of voice. The meaning of words can be completely altered to its opposite by the tone of voice. The voice is another mirror of the heart. Are the tones we hear soft, gentle, and inviting, or are they shrill, hard, and disapproving? A raised voice betrays anger before the angry person him or herself may be even be aware of it. We understand attitudes and emotions such as doubt, enthusiasm, discouragement, kindness, and fear through the way it is said, not just the words.

People can learn to mask their tone of voice as cleverly as a poker player masks their body language. However, it isn’t easy. Comparatively speaking, the spoken word is far easier to disguise. No wonder we scan all three modes of communicating and attempt to integrate them into a coherent message before we trust our understanding.

In marriage counseling, I coach couples to pay attention to their body language and tone of voice so they are giving clear and unambiguous messages. If they mean to reconcile, their non-verbal language says a lot about how they are feeling about each other. Some people need to be easier to read and to project the non-verbal language of love and intimacy more than they do. We are like a book and our eyes, face, and the voice are the title page that will invite a reader to delve further into our experience.

Misinterpretation. If you think words are easily misunderstood, try body language and tone of voice. I see many individuals who believe they hear and know better what another person is feeling or thinking because of their assumptions and beliefs that they are making based on non-verbal messages.

Sometimes they are intuitive and right on the mark, while other times they are dead wrong. Right or wrong, it is dangerous. Body language and tone of voice can be denied. Sometimes rightfully so. Arguments about what non-verbal communication really mean go nowhere and arouse anger. They can’t be resolved through debate as easily as disputes about words.

The perceiver, in order to justify their preferred explanation of what is going on, interprets body language and tone of voice in line with what they already believe.

"Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind. Desire conceals truth, as darkness does the earth." - Seneca

This is a delicate matter. Is the perceiver on to something truthful or is this a provocative insinuation based on a projection of inner need? The way around this is to take the person at their word, trust their spoken intent and look for results in actions that make their words ring true. The speaker deserves the benefit of the doubt.

I have seen spouses driven crazy by their jealous partners reading way too much into their tone of voice, their glances and even their smallest actions. Nothing the innocent spouse can say or do alleviates the fears of their insecure mate. On the other hand, an affair is often discovered through the intuitive reading of non-verbal behavior.

When people are making changes, their non-verbal behavior communicates care and concern and matches the changes being made. People need time to observe, trust and experience changes, especially in the non-verbal arena before they begin to trust the changes being made.