Without the sound can you tell what is going on – Nonverbal communication


English: A woman and a man performing a high five.

What is going on here?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By David Joel Miller.

You hear them talking but you don’t believe them, why?

What do we do when the words don’t match the gut feeling we have? Do you trust yourself or do you think you must be wrong?

Your gut is telling you something and it should be getting more of an audience. In day-to-day life the sound is so overbearing we forget that more than half of all human communication comes via nonverbal channels. If you haven’t practiced paying attention to the other part of communication you are at a serious disadvantage.

Some small children seem to know this. Words telling them to come over here, I just want to talk with you, do not match up with the clenched fists and the obvious signs of anger. They avoid people like that. Somewhere along the way most of us lose this ability to make use of the non-verbal parts of communication.

Here are some exercises to make you more aware of body language, nonverbal communication and what the real meaning may be behind the words.

Exercise 1

Find a Television show you do not normally watch or rent a movie of a type that is not on your regular viewing list. Turn the sound down and begin to watch the show. What do you think is happening here? What are people feeling?

Make a few notes as you go along. Can you tell what the emotions being portrayed are from just the pictures? Can you spot when the director introduces a bad guy? How can you tell that? Most shows use a lot of music to cue up the feelings. Watch for a director that can tell the story with the pictures only. Did this come through in the story you are watching, or did you need to words to tell if the characters liked each other or were enemies?

Next replay the same story with the sound up. Check what you see now with the notes you made. Do you get the same feelings now? Why or why not?

Exercise 2

Observe a couple or family through a window or in a public place, somewhere where you can be far enough away you can’t hear the words they are saying.

Watch for a while and begin to develop a theory about who these people are and why they are together.

Is this a family? Have they been together a long time? Do they like each other? Or is this the weekly visit from the absent dad? Are all the children from the same family or are some neighbors?

Are mom and dad still very much in love or is this mom or dad’s new partner out to meet the kids.

What do you think the relationships are like between the children? Do they get along normally or are they making an extra effort to get along today?

In this setting, you will probably not be able to confirm or deny your conclusions. Be willing to not know and to entertain possibilities.

A writer could construct a whole novel from this exercise but then the novelist does not need to stick to reality. Can you tell a playful tussle from a case of child abuse?

Conducting a few of these experiments trying to make meaning from situations can greatly improve your skills at reading nonverbal cues. It can also help you see how someone who is not able to read cues could miss read situations completely and acting on these misinterpretations get themselves into trouble.

Certain mental health disorders are characterized by an inability to read other people, not recognizing anger from facial expressions for example. Can you see how misreading what people mean or over-reliance on the words they say but missing the body language and the gestures could result in misunderstandings or even put you at risk for danger?

But poor nonverbal skills can hamper any of us.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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