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What You Need to Know About Nonverbal Communication

Memorial Heights Counseling Houston | Psychotherapy for Couples, Relationships, Marriage, & Families

Imagine with me a typical Saturday at home. You are sitting on your couch checking out a show you've been dying to watch on Netflix when you hear your partner’s voice over your shoulder. “Hey, can you come here for a second?” she asks you. “I need to talk to you about something.”

How are you feeling as you hear these words? The answer, of course, depends a lot on your partner’s nonverbal communication. What facial expression is she making? If she is pleasantly smiling or maintains soft eye contact, you may anticipate a compliment or fun surprise. How is her tone of voice? If she sounds irritated or is speaking more loudly than usual, you may wonder if a lecture or correction is coming your way. If the request comes right after she's had a long phone conversation with a family member, you may infer from her timing that she simply wants your opinion on one aspect of it.

Communication is so much more than just the words we choose! Some communication researchers have concluded that less than 10% of what we communicate depends on word choice alone. That means up to 90% of what we are communicating to the people around us is nonverbal!

What does this mean for our love relationships? If we aren’t aware of our nonverbals, they can really undermine our ability to communicate clearly with each others. If we are perceived as critical or demanding, we may shut down partner's ability to truly listen to what we are saying and seek to understand our perspective. Also, if our nonverbals are communicating something other than what we want them to, they may betray us and send a contradictory message to the one we love. Imagine, for example, telling your partner to calm down by yelling or intimidating them—what a mixed message! By becoming aware of our nonverbals, we can more clearly communicate our perspective while honoring the connection we share.

Relationship experts Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson say that one of the central tasks of any relationship is to connect with the one you love through communicating safety and security—especially through our nonverbal communications. They describe seven aspect of nonverbal communication to consider when communicating:

  1. Eye contact. Are you making eye contact or avoiding it? How intense is your gaze?

  2. Facial expression. Are you projecting tension or calm through your facial expression? If someone saw a picture of your face, how would they guess you are feeling?

  3. Tone of voice. How loud or soft are you speaking? How quickly or slowly are you pacing your words? Do you sound relaxed, excited, angry?

  4. Gestures. What are you doing with your hands while you speak?

  5. Posture. Are you towering over your partner? Are you turning toward them or away?

  6. Timing. When are you choosing to communicate? Is your partner at a place where they can receive it? Are you at a place emotionally where you can clearly communicate?

  7. Intensity of response. Does your communication match the situation? Are you more or less intense than the situation requires? Are you maybe reacting to something else?

Take a moment to think about a time you felt comforted by someone—maybe a parent, spouse, friend, or mentor. What was it that made you feel comforted? What did their face look like—did their expression seem appropriate for the situation? How were they positioned toward you—close by, far away, or with an arm around your shoulder? How did they sound as they spoke to you—was their tone shrill or soothing? Did they approach you at an appropriate time?

As you think through what it feels like to be comforted by others, imagine embodying that same kind of care for the one you love. In your next interaction with them, try to stay aware of how they are perceiving you through your nonverbal communications, and don’t be afraid to try out new ways of communicating nonverbally in order to clearly express your love, care, and respect for them.

At Memorial Heights Counseling, we love helping couples communicate well and strengthen the love they share. If you want more information about couples counseling or would like to schedule an appointment, you can contact us here.

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