Understanding Body Language

We grow up with an excellent understanding of body language. The development of that understanding begins in infancy with our communication with care givers.

If you have ever held a lively animated baby, and looked and listened to them, they work very hard to connect with care givers. Those babies know there is survival value in keeping the people who feed them connected. So they look and act charming to keep the oxytocin flowing in the caregiver brain.

The nonverbal communications amplifies the verbal communication, and we all learn to describe what we counselors call congruence or incongruence in the match-up between verbal and physical communications as we gain some life experience.

Oftentimes we say the person who is incongruent is lieing about whatever question we have asked them because of how we feel when observing an incongruence, because we are not aware of the nuances being developed by the researchers in this field.

I think a good example of this is communication with our own children.

My son is working hard to mask his non-verbal facial expressions, which tells me to be alarmed and explore a bit, but I need to regulate my own physiology, because my over arousal turns this communication into a power struggle.

The one thing to remember about understanding body language is that your body language is constantly changing, especially in intimate relationships.

For example, have someone videotape you and your mate having a casual Sunday morning conversation and watch the very subtle communications indicated by facial expression and tone of voice later on.

You will see the give and take involved in conversation about what are usually mundane events.

Understanding Stronger Body Language

When people are feeling a stronger feeling, then the body language and tone of voice can be amplified of course.

Another way to observe body language is to watch TV with the sound turned off. The problem with this tool is that the actors are acting, which feels a bit irritating to me because they are not really emotionally involved in the situation they are acting out, but it does demonstrate body language.

There are a number of experts out there who are offering us their body language guide, but even the experts can only observe and catalog an anomaly, and then they have to ask a question about the anomaly, which is what I do when I ask my son about the stony face I mentioned above.

I have enjoyed studying the body language work of Paul Ekman,Ph.D. who has been studying facial expressions for a long time, and has even created a CD with his model demonstrated on it, and it is amazing that I can do so poorly on his model naming the feeling a subtle change in facial muscles demonstrates.

I think that taking the change in expression out of the context of the conversation makes it difficult to identify the feeling, which is my mea culpa, Dr. Ekman, but I study his work anyway, and I use it with my domestic violence folks so they get a sense of how they respond to the non-verbal communications from their partners and children.

The many models for using nonverbal communication in interrogation are less applicable I think to conversation and relationship than our life experience, and all I know when I am suddenly aware of an incongruence is that something happened that I need to check out maybe.

For example, I talk to my male domestic violence clients about how they felt when they received a nonverbal communication from a woman that was what we would describe as coy or seductive, and since she had not said anything, how could they know what was being communicated? 

Noticing and understanding body language is what I do as a counselor.

Early in my work as a facilitator of experiential work, I learned that the body will respond with what we called "a truth response".

In other words the body might move in a way that said there were feelings, perhaps painful feelings associated with the query the client was responding to, while the client's verbal response indicated that this was no big deal.

Helen Fisher,Ph.D. who has studied our mating rituals for about 30 years can describe the patterns that couples engage in as they do the mating dance, and Allan Schore,Ph.D. has talked about how mom's and babies engage each other, and how Dad's and babies engage each other long before the baby has words.

Attachment happens based on the two way non-verbal but never-the-less noisy conversation between baby and care giver.

I read my first book on body language in the 1960's when I was much more interested the mating dance than I am today, and I wanted to know how to tell if the woman I was looking at was interested in me, and lots of books are still playing on understanding body language of the mating dance as a way to sell books.

The body language component of communication can be broken down into a number of subdivisions if you will, facial expressions, hand gestures, feet placement and gestures, tone of voice, for example.

But what I think about is fascinating about body language and understanding body language is its fluidity.

While you can certainly observe patterns, folks who are are communicating are engaged in a constantly changing mosaic of changing tones and expressions and gestures which amplify the verbiage, and watching that in action and attempting to understand body language on the run is fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, the study of the patterns requires us to slow down the experience, and I think the individuals who have made the greatest contribution to understanding body language Paul Ekman,Ph.D. and Helen Fisher,Ph.D.

Ekman has attempted to break down our facial expressions into recognizable patterns, which can involve very subtle movement of muscles in the face which have no other purpose other than signaling.

Non Verbal Cues 

Body Language Books 

Love Body Language 

Body Language Facial Expressions 

Communication Body Language 

Body Language Explained 

Nonverbal Body Language 

Non Verbal Communications 

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