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Body Language:
One More Tool For Communication

Ellen Johansen
East Hampton, New York, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 6, December 1999-January 2000, p. 140

I'm a novice at reading body language. I really began to think about it after being trained as an HRE Instructor. It has come more and more to mind as I examine the world around me. I was watching a television show with my daughter the other day and found myself wondering what made this show so effective. There was a blue dog (named Blue Clue) helping children find neat clues in the most unlikely places and there was something else that made it especially engaging to me. The male actor who was Blue Clue's friend used incredibly expressive body language to communicate everything. Fascinated, I observed these cues to see if they enhanced what he was actually saying. He was speaking in very simple sentences. However I understood more than he was verbalizing because he was employing body language. He captivated me with his concerned eyes. I wanted to go with him as he excitedly waved me into the picture of imagination. When his body expressed puzzlement, I wanted to find the answers. I found myself liking and trusting him.

Body language is the number one connector between people. Learning how to read it will aid in understanding what is being said. It can help to identify a new mother's problem when her question doesn't seem to match her body language. It gives insight into the effects of confrontation and it gives instant feedback in a group situation. Robert Bolton, author of People Skills, says, "A person cannot not communicate. Though she may decide to stop talking, it is impossible to stop behaving. The behavior of a person - her facial expression, posture, gestures and other actions - provide an uninterrupted stream of information and a constant source of clues to the feeling she is experiencing. The reading of body language, therefore is one of the most significant skills to good listening."

The other day, during a typical La Leche League meeting, I had the opportunity to use my new found skill. As my co-Leader was going through the advantages of breastfeeding, I studied the people around the room, it suddenly became very clear to me that people reacted immediately to what my co-Leader was saying. It may not have been verbal, but each mother had a response to the information that was being offered. When someone mentioned the family bed, I saw a newly pregnant mother squirm. Though I didn't know her well enough to be sure, my guess was that she was uncomfortable with the idea. There were several times when I saw a Group member lean forward in a very eager manner and I knew that she wanted to contribute to the conversation. I could tell when one participant was ready to leave because she sat on the edge of her seat and kept looking at her watch. It was astonishing to see this silent world of communication unfolding before my eyes.

I noticed one mother in particular. Most people were silently involved, their bodies comfortable in their chairs, their babies nursing contentedly - all but one, whose body seemed tense. She was hunched over in her chair, her baby in a carrier on the floor next to her. She seemed to become more and more uncomfortable. Her face became red and her eyes swollen. Finally, she covered her eyes with her hands; when she removed them they were rimmed with tears. I waited until the end of the meeting when she was getting ready to leave. I approached her and said, "I noticed that you were feeling distressed during the meeting." Immediately tears began to flow and her troubles came pouring out. After a few hugs and much listening we began to find a way to meet her needs. Body language was my key to opening a helping conversation with this mother.

One evening I experimented with my own body language during our family dinner-table conversation and had surprising results. I found that when I exaggerated my own movements, displaying good attending behavior, the most interesting thing began to occur. As I sat on the edge of my seat, displayed good eye contact, and leaned toward the person who was speaking, there was more listening at the table. Or maybe I was listening more because I was aware of my body language. I concluded that the listener's body language is just as important as the body language of those we are listening to.

What about helping a mother on the phone? How can you respond to body language when none is visibly apparent? I have found that there are many vocal clues that a Leader can tune in to in order to get the emotional meaning behind the words. By noticing the pitch of the voice and the rhythm of speech you get a sense of how the speaker is feeling and then you can mirror it back in words to confirm whether you heard correctly. When you hear a mother speak quickly in a high tone you may suspect that she is feeling anxious; if she sounds abrupt, she may be feeling defensive. A high pitch or drawn-out sound could mean disbelief. Try closing your eyes and imagining what the mother looks like as she speaks. This can connect what you hear with a body language that makes sense. You can confirm your observations by saying something like, "I hear that you feel anxious because you can't seem to get the answers you need from your doctor." If you are right, you will have increased your credibility and if you are wrong, she will tell you and you will know more about what she is feeling.

I've found that the more I concentrate on body language, the better I get at it. If you want practice in strengthening your ability to read body language, observe the people you see around you this month. How many different emotions does your family communicate to you with their movements? What do your children tell you without ever opening their mouths? Take a minute to notice the participants at your monthly Series Meeting. What do they tell you with their eyes, a lift of the brow, their hands and even where they sit at the meeting? How does body language differ between a new mother and a mother of a two-year-old? Set aside some time to change your listening pose and see how much difference it makes in how the other person talks to you and how much you hear. All of these exercises will heighten your sensitivity to this special language and help you to become a better communicator and a better helper.

Learn to Read Body Language to

  • Gain accurate feedback about how your words are being received
  • Gain insight into the effects of confrontation
  • Start a conversation
  • Confront people about the discrepancy between what their body language is conveying
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