Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Non-Verbal Language Is Pathway To Intimacy

May 30, 2005

Communication just doesn’t happen with the brain. It happens with the whole body, emotions and brain.

Body language and tone of voice. By expressing one’s opinion through negative body language - frowning, rolling eyes in disbelief or contempt, nodding "you’re wrong," giving a bored or indifferent look, a listener can effectively shut down or agitate a speaker.

Tone of voice - belligerent, incredulous, defensive, skeptical, mechanical, argumentative, etc. - also communicates powerfully that the listener has a definite opinion about the topic and is disputing or not caring about the speaker’s point of view.

Some people mistakenly believe that by showing they understand they are agreeing with what is being said. No, all it means is that the listener is patient, is trying to understand, and is waiting to gain the floor before he or she voices an opinion.

Listeners need to summarize in a "caring" way what they are hearing. Caring is best shown non-verbally. When body language and tone of voice match the content of what the listener is summarizing, then the speaker relaxes and feels understood. When they don’t match, the speaker interprets the non-verbal communication as the true message.

Challenging non-verbal communication. Another big mistake in communication is that people often read more into body language and/or tone of voice than the speaker believes is true.

People don’t like being told what they really think or feel based on someone’s interpretation of non-verbal communication. They are the experts on themselves and want to be believed. To argue about non-verbal communication is an argument that nobody wins. There is no right or wrong, except what the speaker says it means.

Instead of assuming you know what discordant non-verbal communication means, ask about it.

Listeners can adopt a posture of being mystified by the mismatch, point it out and ask for a clarification. "You seem angry, is that right?" The speaker can focus on their feelings, own it and proceed to explain in greater depth what they are trying to communicate. If they are not angry, or do not feel they are angry, then they can clarify what they are feeling.

Take people at their word or clarify but do not dispute non-verbal communication you don’t understand. To summarize:

- If you are a listener, use your very best non-verbal listening skills, body posture, facial expressions, focused attention and kind tone of voice.

- If you are a listener and you are getting mixed messages between verbal and non-verbal language, gently inquire about the discrepancy and be prepared to accept the response at face value.

- Do not debate the meaning of speaker’s non-verbal behavior or assume you know better than they do what is really meant.

Communicating with the heart. One frequent complaint in marital relationships is one spouse feels unloved, unappreciated, lonely, and that he or she doesn’t really matter to their partner. There are a lot of reasons for this including the lack of time and attention to the relationship, lack of affection, lack of recreational companionship, harsh and disrespectful arguments, or a host of other problems.

Many times, it is wives who are frustrated with the lack of emotional response of their husbands. Some men aren’t very expressive. Their language of love is service, companionship, providing financial support or other things they "do" to demonstrate their love.

At the same time, they are doing what they think should be adequate, their wives are frustrated by their monotone tone of voice, their factual, matter-of-fact manner, or their jumping to advice giving or problem solving. They don’t express their love with emotion in their voice. They are not soft and soothing in the way they reach out and comfort their wives.

Their apologies are not heartfelt and said without the emotion that shows they really care. They don’t show enough enthusiasm in their fun or enough excitement in their greetings. Their non-verbal behavior makes their spouses wonder if they really care. But they do. And they don’t like being told they don’t.

Their lack of emotional responsiveness can be addressed by directly improving their non-verbal communication.

Coaching non-verbal behavior. In my marital counseling, I first help men listen compassionately to their wives emotions. That helps them connect with their own feelings.

In their responses, I help men soften and lower their tone of voice, put emotion in their voices, lean forward, look into the eyes of their partner, hold or stroke their hand and to speak from the heart. In some cases I help them articulate their feelings and get comfortable with an emotional vocabulary, one they are not used to using.

They then put their own thoughts into words and proceed to touch their spouses hearts with their words and feelings that have long been missing between them. Some men need to be shown a second or third time and then go home to practice hyping up their emotion and non-verbal gestures of caring.

When men see the impact of how powerful their non-verbal communication can be, they "get" it. It gives them a key to their wife’s heart that has been long been missing. As a couple, they feel connected. This changes everything. They become extra patient and loving with each other. They get back on the same side in meeting the struggles of life.

By listening to emotion and by responding with emotion, a couple can get back the intimacy they once enjoyed.