Can you hear me now?
Anyone who has been in therapy knows that therapists always talk about communication. Communication is the key to better understanding. Everyone needs to work on his or her communication skills. How would you assess your ability to communicate with others? Today I want to address the communication process and, in particular, I want to talk about communication skills.
There are always two channels of communication happening at the same time. There is the verbal channel, the specific words you say. And, there is the nonverbal channel. The non-verbals include what is not said, and what is communicated through body language. Your facial expression, your degree of movement, the tone of voice, the speed of delivery and the volume are all used to communicate to others. All these things are components of your non-verbal communications. Therapist in school are taught that whenever there is a dis-connect between what someone is saying verbally, and what their body is saying nonverbally; you must believe the non-verbal’s.
Let’s explore a picture of the non-verbal communications among people. We will start with the voice and the non-verbal components of the voice. If we define verbal communications specifically as the words you say, then we have to include in the non-verbal component the tone, speed, inflection you use. All of these ingredients impact the meaning that is transmitted.
Children learn very early in life to understand the nuance of delivery as opposed to the specificity of the words. They learn to say, “yes, ma’am” to mean, “I understand and will heartily comply!” Like: “Do you guys want to go to a movie and get some ice cream?” “Yes, Ma’am!!” But by the time they are teens they have mastered the ambiguity of what you say and what you mean. Teens learn to say, “Yes, ma’am,” to mean many other things, one of which is “go to hell” and “I am not going to do it, ever.” When teens are confronted about using the verbal phrase “Yes, ma’am,” to mean no way and it will never happen, they usually go all wide-eyed, spread their palms open and outward with a raised set of eyebrows, looking incredulous at your misunderstanding and say something such as, “You are always accusing me of that, I did not do anything, I just said yes, ma’am!” “What do you want me to say?” But they know, and you know, that they said, “Go to hell”.
There are other components of non-verbal communications that do not communicate through utilization of the voice and its nuances to convey meaning. Examples of non-verbal communication can be body language such as crossing your arms, sitting with a wide stance, the way you hold your head, whether or not you stare at someone with a challenge in your eye, or a blank look. Tension and stiffness in your posture or a sprawled relaxation, alertness, or attention are conveyed non-verbally by body posture. There are so many, very complex ways that we communicate non-verbally. What is fascinating about this is the incredible complexity of the non-spoken communications, which we all learn as children long before we ever go to school. Children learn to “read” their parents the same way a dog learns to “read” its master. Are we angry? Happy? In a good mood? Do we have a cookie for them or should they go hide? Is it going to be a bad day at Black Rock?
Children must learn to read these signals in order to survive and succeed. They are no less complex and no less important than they are for young wolf pups learning to survive in the pack. How do I display dominance or submission? How do you? How do I invite or seduce with out words? Kids must learn these things and they are not language (verbal) specific. Sometimes they are not culturally specific either.
Therapists are trained to watch, in a conscious way, to see the things that children learn to see reflexively. It is something everyone has the ability to do, but therapists are trained to do it consciously and reflectively. I teach my counseling students about the theory of “Rolling Assumptions.” What I recommend to them is that as an artifact of non-verbal communication skills, they begin to make assumptions about their clients the instant they see them. I also encourage them to remember that the client is making similar assumptions regarding the therapist. As soon as the client sees the office, they start to make assumptions based on the color of the waiting room, the quality of the furnishings, and how the therapist dresses. (I once told a student that if he wanted to be taken seriously by grown ups coming in to pay for sessions, he would need to consider getting rid of his mullet. If he wanted to market himself as a specialist in teen problems, in particular drug and alcohol problems, he could keep it. If he wanted to be a more generalized practitioner, in my estimation he needed to loose it.) At the same time, the therapist makes assumptions when they see the clients. How they sit or stand, whether they talk to others in the waiting room, if they make eye contact with the therapist all are seen as parts of a puzzle that must find their place. Do they offer to shake hands? Who among them directs traffic and what order do they come into the session room? Where do they sit? Does it mean anything? These are some of the questions that a good therapist unconsciously and reflexively uses to make assumptions about a new client.
As clinicians get to know the client and the client’s story, they begin to validate or dismiss the assumptions they originally made, and to make new ones. These new assumptions are derived by what the clients are saying verbally, but also by what message they transmit non-verbally. The entire process is a dance of communication that has its own rhythm and its own music. You learn as much by what is not said and how it is not said, as you do by what is said and how. You must remember, as the clinician, the pattern of what is said and not said, and how this is conveyed, is the most important part of the message.
Other examples of non-verbal communications are space and time. Space is often used to communicate status, dominance, acceptability, and intimacy. Time is used in similar ways, to communicate status, resistance, reliability, excitement, etc., in order for the therapist to understand these communications and to teach the client to understand them, they once again resort to rolling assumptions, which they identify and discuss with the client.
Clinicians who are skilled communicators can begin to explain to the clients how they communicate and ask them to reflect on whether or not they are communicating effectively. The clinician observes and reflects the pattern of communication. When I am working with clients I reflect back to them how I “hear” and “experience” them, and ask if I am understand the message correctly. We process their responses until they are convinced that I “hear” them and I “get it.” Clients often say, “You know me better than anyone else.” That is nice to hear, but I always remember that it is an artifact of good communication skills and the process of paying close attention as the client shares with me their real self.
If this process works well, then the time comes to teach the clients how to do this with others. My goal is to help them learn to do reflective listening, and checking of assumptions. I want to teach them to consciously attend to their non-verbals, as well as the non-verbals of those with whom they communicate. They must learn to develop the ability to ask for clarification and check for understanding. This is a two way street and if all the players learn to walk on this street, their relational issues will decrease significantly. Good therapy is about good communication. Listen, attend, and reflect without judgment! Focus on the process, and help them dance the dance of good communicators.
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