Reading Body Language at Family Get-Togethers

Cover of Healing Relationships is an Inside JobLast week I gave you an excerpt from Healing Relationships is an Inside Job on suggestions for how you might listen to someone with whom you would ordinarily have a difficult time.

This week I want to share the text that appears right after that segment in the book. Like the suggestions on listening “with the third ear,” this post gives you information on how body language gives a wealth of information to another person. It can tell them whether you are really interested in them, or whether you can hardly wait until you have a chance to say something.

This information is something I wish I had known decades ago. For many, many years I would be so intent on what I wanted to say that I would often interrupt the other person before he could finish his own thoughts and express his own point of view.

I am pleased to say that I don’t do that nearly as much as I used to do. Best of all, I have found that I connect much better with others — once I learned to let them finish what they wanted to say.

Silent Signals Speak Volumes

In discussing his book,  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, on National Public Radio in 2009, Malcolm Gladwell described an insurance company that wanted to know which doctors were likely to be sued. The approach the researchers took was not to look at the information the doctors gave patients or the quality of their recommendations, neither of which played a role in which doctor landed up in court. Instead, the study found that what made a difference between doctors who were sued and those who were not was how a doctor talked and how often a doctor interrupted the patient.

Even more interesting is the technique used to evaluate the communication of the physician. When people looked at videos of the doctor interacting with the patient—even though they were not able to hear what was being said—they could still estimate fairly easily which doctors would be more likely, or less likely, to be sued based on such criteria alone. Remember, the quality of care recommended was the same.

What the researchers found was that people almost never sue doctors they like. And, they like doctors who don’t interrupt them (doctors who were sued would sometimes interrupt the patient within two seconds); who give them a few more minutes of their time (on average only three more minutes made a difference); and who show by both words and body language that they really care about the patient.

John Gottman, PhD, has studied couples extensively and has a track record of predicting with 90% accuracy which newlywed couples will remain married and which will divorce four to six years later. He has done this both by listening to the content of their discussions, and by watching their body language and facial expressions without hearing what is being said.

Clearly there is more to communication than listening. The non-verbal signals we send to others can be as important as the words we choose. So it is essential that your gestures are congruent with your intention to heal your relationship.

For example, looking the other person directly in the eye indicates you want to be open and honest with them. Choosing a chair that is way over on the other side of the room deliberately puts distance between you. Slouching can seem as though you are comfortable, but also as though you aren’t engaged. Gently touching the other person on the arm can reinforce your intention to be empathetic. Nodding your head and making comments like, “That’s interesting” and “Tell me more,” help to further the discussion and show you are listening.

Here is a good way to know whether or not your gestures express openness and invite respectful communication in return: pay careful attention to what you do with your body and your face when you are having a very friendly conversation with a good friend. Then do the same with the person with whom you want to repair a relationship!

Best wishes on using the opportunity of family get-togethers to practice better communication skills!

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