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Using Non-verbal Communication and Body Language in Counselling

Author: Dr. Ali Khwaja

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Using Non-verbal Communication and Body Language in Counselling

To build better relations, it is very important to understand your own body language and the image you are projecting by it. There is a difference between “what I am” and “what I project myself to be”. The latter is due to body language. In counseling, it is very important to understand your own body language and the image you are projecting by it. Become an ardent observer of body language, since it does not lie, and gives one a much deeper insight into people you wish to understand – much more than their words can.

Start off with observing body language in public places or parties where no one knows that you are watching them, and compare the words with the gestures – you will see the discrepancies and learn the true feelings of the person. It is a continuous process, and there are no absolutes in body language. Keep in mind that it is culture-specific and what you read in Western books may not be completely applicable to people here. Just keep observing, analyzing, correcting yourself, and learning! Similarly, observe the characters of your favourite TV serial by making the sound ‘Mute’ and guessing what they said.

How to improve Body Language to aid Counselling:

a) POSTURE: Sit in a comfortable, relaxed posture, so that your client also will be comfortable with you. Be natural, but not too casual. Most important, show interest.
b) SEATING: Maintain a comfortable distance from  him.  You should neither be too close nor too far from your client.  Do not  have any unnecessary barriers between yourself and  your client. Maintain distance based on accepted Body Zones. (Normally the Zones are: Public zone > 10 ft, Social zone: 3-10 ft, Personal zone 18 inches to 3 feet, Intimate zone < 18 inches.  You should neither be too close nor too far in terms of the above zones.  Do not  have any unnecessary barriers between yourself and  person you are interacting with, and respect the other person’s desire to have barriers, specially if it is of the opposite gender, or if it is a new person. Allow the counselee to come closer, but you do not go too close.
c) FACE YOUR CLIENT: Only if you sit facing the  client,  he will  know  that you are interested in listening to  him  and that  you  are  attentive. Your face as well as your body should be turned towards him. Let your body give the impression “I am with you.”
d) EYE CONTACT: Eye contact wins client's confidence. Do not stare fixedly making him uncomfortable. Keep looking at him most of the time (at the zone between his eyes and mouth). Avoid looking towards the door, or at your watch.
e) Have an INTERESTED look. This will make him feel comfortable. Have genuine expressions, and be natural. Reflect his emotions.
f) Have an OPEN POSTURE Your body should be  expressing  to the client that you are open to receive his communication and that you care for him as a friend – and that you are not getting impatient.
g) MAKE ENCOURAGING SOUNDS helping the client  to  continue with  his narration. Saying "Hmm, hmm", or "I see" or  "Yes" is enough to carry on the conversation. Smiling at the right time is an indicator that you have understood and accepted.
h) OBSERVE the client's non-verbal behaviour. If there are discrepancies between what he says and what he expresses, he has still not opened out with his real problem.
i) ALLOW SILENCES. When the client feels overwhelmed by his emotions or when he has said something critical he is likely to become silent for sometime. Silence may mean that the client is feeling sad, guilty, scared etc. Silence is not an inactive stage. The client is thinking something important and is communicating non-verbally. Do gentle probing only when the silence becomes too long.  If silences are handled well they make communication more effective, and create warmth between Cr-Ce.
j) Use appropriate QUESTIONS, CLARIFICATIONS and SUMMARIZING to understand what is being said clearly.

Be Aware of the Following:

Feet - do  not shuffle, walk  meaninglessly,  shift  from one to another, rock to and fro, rise on your toes. Feet are the most difficult to control in body language, and they give away the true feelings of the person. Avoid crossing your legs if possible.
Lies - verbal lies are easy, but body does not lie usually. You can catch a fleeting truthful expression on the face before the person covers it up. People telling lies usually have stiff and controlled postures, and minimum arm movements.
Dressing - plays an important part in what impression you are giving others. They form judgments based on your height, complexion, suitability of your dress to the occasion. Shoes/chappals are one way of making out a person's nature.
Check out your tone when using key words- e.g. “Yes” “yesss” “ye-e- es”

Gestures and their Importance:

Most of the time we use gestures without even being aware of them. Study your own gestures and those of others:

Limply held hands convey a sense of dejection, of negativity, or lack of vitality. Hiding the thumbs is a sign of withdrawal.  The thumb held rigidly close to the palm betrays someone who is over-controlled. Perspiring of the hands is an indication of fear or discomfort. Arms and hands held close to the body are a sign of introverted nature or defensive attitude. Jerky or rigid hand or arm movements are invariably a sign of tension and anxiety. So is fiddling.

Confidence and self assurance is conveyed by easy, flowing, controlled movements. Each gesture is like a word in a language.  In order to understand completely, one must structure the gestures into sentences that express complete thoughts. The way you enter or get up to talk makes the important first impression.  First impressions are made within seconds, confirmed within minutes, and last for a long time. Always maintain eye contact -- many emotions are expressed by eyes, and the other person feels a bond of attachment.  Do not stare, and do not have shifty eyes. Have an open posture, giving a feeling of welcome to the other person. Smiling faces are always more attractive than glum or frowning faces.

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