BY NICKI JURINA
As a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling student, I have taken part in training in various techniques of therapy and theories of counseling that go back to the beginning musings of Freudian Psychoanalysis. I have been taught and am in training in what to say and how to say it, and which questions to ask. I have been in training in how to actively listen. I have been in training to listen for key words or phrases that indicate various mental health disorders. I have participated in lectures, presentations, and demonstrations of how to administer an intake session, write a diagnostic assessment, give a diagnosis, and be alert to the red flags of ethical limitations on confidentiality.
In all of the areas and theories that I have learned and been training in, I have learned that the area that tells the most about an individual, as well as having the greatest impact on an individual, is the simple tool of non-verbal communication. Not only does non-verbal communication speak volumes about an individual's current disposition, emotions, and turmoil, but oftentimes, reversed, it speaks the loudest to the individual receiving this form of communication.
Imagine sitting across from a person with a flat affect in voice and facial expression, head down and staring at trembling fingers that don’t know what to do with themselves other than pick at the cuticles. They dare not make eye contact, their body posture is tense, their feet crossed, and it almost appears as if they are hiding within themselves, wishing to curl up in a shell and remain invisible. Yet they answer, "I’m really okay," when asked how they are doing today.
If you can imagine this, does the answer seem congruent with what the body is telling you?
Let’s try a different image: There is a person sitting across from you who has just shared with you a painful recent ordeal. Their body is relaxed, they are smiling, and making eye contact with you. They seem okay, content, almost as if they are completely separated from what they have just shared with you. Does this seem like a person who is truly okay?
My experience is unique: I am training to be a companion and guide on another individual's path to healing and further wholeness. I am training to assist another human being in carrying the burden of their confusion, pain, and frustration, and my position is to be a beacon of hope for them. But what about everyday interactions with others?
Do you smile and acknowledge the presence of another individual while you are walking to work? Do you make eye contact with another human being as you pass by? Do you say, with your eyes and your body language, "I see you; I acknowledge you; and you are good"?
A friend of mine at the university I attend once told a story that changed my view of non-verbal communication permanently. He is a priest there, and his story is very simple:
I was home visiting family over the Christmas holidays when I received a call from a local parish asking if I would be able to celebrate the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, because the priest who had been assigned had fallen ill. I agreed to say a mass at a parish I was unfamiliar with and share in this celebration with a congregation who knew nothing about me and had never seen me before.
As I was entering the sanctuary at the beginning of mass, I made eye contact with a young woman who was seated in a pew with her family. We connected, and I simply smiled at her and waved. She smiled back, and at the end of the mass, we again exchanged eye contact. I simply mouthed "Merry Christmas" with a smile once again. I greeted her family after mass, never speaking a word to her, and wished them all a good night. I never thought about that young woman again, until I received a letter from her several weeks later. It said:
I attended the Midnight Mass you celebrated at my parish this past Christmas. I was seated in the back with my family and you smiled at me and waved. When you were walking out, you smiled again and wished me a Merry Christmas.
When I went home that evening, I thought a lot about the smile you gave me, and as my family was opening their Christmas presents downstairs, I excused myself, went into my room and shredded the envelopes that held the suicide note that I had written to each of my family members. I had planned on ending my life that evening after the mass when my family had gone to sleep. When we made eye contact and you simply smiled, at me, a complete stranger, you gave me hope that there is at least one good, kind person in the world who sees me, and your smile saved my life.
You will never know who I am, but I wanted to thank you, because your kind gesture of noticing me saved my life that night."
A simple smile saved a young woman’s life.
As powerful as non-verbal communication can be towards another person for good, it can also be used for bad. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you said." This speaks very clearly to things such as body language, eye contact, voice tone, and inflection. Our lack of words can speak to acknowledge the dignity of the existence of another human being, or it can be silent and ignore another person walking right beside you. Challenge yourselves: Acknowledge another person as a dignified human being without ever uttering a word.