If you were to ask, How are you? and I responded I’m fine, but my voice was stern or mocking, my brow furrowed, and my hands on my hips in an aggressive stance, what would you think? My words send the message I am fine, but my non-verbals send a very different message: I am definitely not fine. As a listener you are probably confused by the completely contradictory messages.
Communication studies find that the words we use are the least powerful element in defining the nature of a relationship. Voice, tone, gestures, facial expression, body postures, inflection hold much more power.
Your goal is to have congruency between what you feel, what you say, and how you say it. Anything else contributes to miscommunication, and communicating is challenging enough already.
Relationships are complex and emotions get stirred up in counseling sessions. Emotions can be hard or soft, and your communication should reflect these nuances. It is not genuine to always be happy, always be sad, always be meek. I work with couples to develop ways to match their verbal and nonverbal communications, and have that communication be in harmony with the underlying emotion.
When You’re Speaking
When you are talking about vulnerable, painful, or fearful topics, I encourage you to match that affect. Slow down your speech, soften your tone, sit in a non-threatening posture, perhaps hold hands.
In contrast, if you are discussing something that you are very angry about, match that affect as well. Speak with a clear and direct voice, be expressive, go ahead and furrow that brow. Express your anger rather than repress it. Release that tension and convey to your partner the depth of importance the topic holds for you.
When You’re Listening
As a listener the same rules apply. Maintain eye contact with your partner. Turn your upper body to face them directly, sit or stand in a comfortably close proximity. This sends the message I am listening and what you are saying is important to me. If I say I’m listening but I am standing half way across the room, my body is facing away from you, and my eyes keep darting to the television or my cell phone instead of you, the message I am sending is I am not fully listening and what you are saying is not fully important to me.
I work with couples on these basic listening skills but also on matching each other’s affect. If your partner is telling you their deepest fears, hurts, and wounds, check in with the non-verbal message you are sending as a listener. Is your facial expression hard or soft? Are you leaning towards or away from your partner? Are your arms crossed in front of you—which says, I am guarded—or are you offering a hand to hold in a soft way—which says, I want to connect with you?
Why Does This Matter?
Research finds that people respond to and connect more with non-verbal messages. Expressing emotion allows others to feel them and connect with you.
This is how we empathize.
This is how we bond.
This creates deeper emotional intimacy.
How might your conversations change if your non-verbal communication offered the reassuring message: I am here with you and it is safe to tell me how you feel?
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