I am walking along the ocean one day when I see a man approaching me. I take note of his body language and movement. His shoulders are slumped forward, his head follows his eyes which are gazing at the ground, his feet and legs seem like heavy weights protesting each step he takes. It has become almost a tradition to greet any passer-by in the village in which I live. As we pass I say, “Hello, are you well?” As he walks by I hear him mumble, “Doing fine, real fine.”
Do I listen to his words or do I heed his body language? Because his words are conveying quite a different message to the message his body is conveying.
I am tempted to define his experience. I could say, based upon what his body seems to be expressing that this man is struggling with the weight of the world on his shoulders, that he is immensely saddened and seems to have no hope and little self-esteem.
But what if he is fine? “Fine” could be a relative experience for him. Maybe he hasn’t been fine for a long time and something has recently happened in his life that has caused to make him feel optimistic and hopeful and he still carries the struggles of a hard life in his body.
If this were true for him and I defined his experience, I would have missed a significant current piece of his life and made the erroneous assumption that he wasn’t fine, while in fact he was doing better in that moment than he had been for a while.
Using Body Language to Represent Emotions and Feelings
When I come home from my ocean side walk I announce to Melanie, “I’m home.” I see her in the kitchen washing dishes. Her mouth is down-turned, her eyes lacking vitality. Shoulders are a little hunched over. There’s a sense of a black cloud hanging over her head. She replies very quietly with a simple, “Hi,” and doesn’t look at me.
I could ask her the question, “What’s wrong?” But I don’t. I know when this woman has a down-turned mouth, hunched-over shoulders and is quiet in her reply, that she is sad about something. So I get straight to the point, and I ask her:
“Are you sad about something?”
And she tells me she is and proceeds to tell me what she feels sad about.
I can do this because I have a behavioural context to compare to. It is more usual for Melanie to be lively and loving in her greeting, especially when she hasn’t seen me for a while. She usually smiles or makes a joke. She is much louder in her greeting and her body is straighter. That is Melanie’s body-based signal to convey all is well – her Benchmark Behaviour,
Her Benchmark Behaviour reflects the average behaviour, or her behavioural norm when she hasn’t seen me for a while. Anything outside of the “norm” I expect to see when I walk through the door will indicate to me that there is something else going on for her.
Something else could be that she is joyful, concerned about a family member, contemplative, considering whether she should wear a raincoat in the rain or go out without one. I cannot say I know all of the unconscious variations away from this benchmark, but the ones I do know I will often identify and name. I may therefore name times when her body language is indicating she is angry (“Are you angry, right now?”), confused, or disappointed. There are many experiences of which I ask her, and she asks me. When in doubt, I may simply ask if there is something going on for her?
These questions will be asked out of love and concern for her. My intent is to give her space for expression. When I notice a change in her Benchmark Behaviour and I recognize it as being reflective of her sadness, I ask Melanie what her sadness is about. When she tells me, we may spend a little time discussing it. As the expression of sadness completes itself, I begin to notice her body language change.
One of the key sadness indicators, the down turned mouth is no longer present. Instead there’s flexibility around the mouth, the shoulders have moved away from being hunched to a straighter more relaxed looking position, her eyes have vitality and there is certainly no sense of a black cloud over her head.
Using Body Language to Identify The Benchmark Behaviour
Whenever a client enters my office door I observe his or her Benchmark Behaviour. Noting his initial presentation of himself, I observe how he walks; how he holds his body, his gestures. I listen for any emphasis on words, the general pace of sentences, his skin tone and colour, how he is dressed today, his general mood and demeanour.
I don’t carry a checklist around with me that I check off for each client. These are simply the details contained in what could be best described as my overall impression of him without any attachment to interpretation. If these or any other behavioural observations stand out for me, I take mental note of them to form my composite behavioural whole. This I will term my Benchmark Behaviour for this particular client.
If I have seen this person in a previous session I will mentally compare the Benchmarks and note to myself the ways in which he presented himself the previous time I saw him. This is my behavioural reference point for the person I will be working with for this particular day in this particular session. It takes into account that how he presents himself will be unique not only to this individual, but also unique in reflection of the nature of the relationship he and I have.
If he were presenting himself to another person, even another therapist, his Benchmark Behaviour would be of a different combination and nature to those he presents to me. Our Behavioural Benchmarks will vary with each relationship.
In no way will I frame a definition around the picture this person is presenting to me. I will refrain from saying to myself, “Because this person is expressing with her right hand she has male issues going on for her,” or likewise, “This person has her hand placed around her kidney area she must be fearful today.” This is too formulaic. People are far more complex and complicated to be limited by emotional formulae.
More importantly, as with the fictional man walking by the ocean who responded to my greeting by saying he was doing fine, if I relied on formulae I would probably not be seeing the full behavioural picture being presented.
In reality, it is the composite sum of presented behaviours that may provide the clues to the underlying meaning behind human behaviour. And each “presentation” is unique to each relationship.
- Do you believe body language is an important part of human behaviour and interaction – or not?
- Do you have any examples of moments when body language stood out for you?
- Please share you thoughts and experiences with us.
You have just read an excerpt from Pietro Abela’s forthcoming book, A Return to Consciousness.
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I wish you well