April 25, 2012

Body Language: Our Emotional Traffic Lights

Body Language: Our Emotional Traffic Lights

Getting what people really mean when they talk is difficult. While ordering a hamburger at McDonald's or making a deposit at the bank is simple enough, most other transactions are complex and multi-dimensional.  Every human utterance has both a literal content which is expressed in words and an  emotional context which is communicated non-verbally. Understanding human speech is hard because the lyrics don't always match the tune. That's called a mixed message.

Body language can give us clues to help us decipher the underlying emotional context, (the real meaning) of a person's words. These signals are like emotional traffic lights. If we pay attention to them, we can avoid misunderstandings. Unfortunately, body language is not something that a lot of us understand. Today we're going to talk about it and teach you how to read these emotional traffic lights so that you'll get the message.

Amber Lights When words and body language are in sync, communication is easier.  Just like when the traffic light is green we know we can go and if it is red we must stop. When a person's words don't match or contradict the "tune", however, the emotional traffic signal is amber. For example, every man knows that when his wife says "fine", despite the words, her look tells him that he's in trouble.  We know it can be dangerous to go through an intersection on amber, likewise, it is never smart to ignore an amber signal in conversation. The non verbal feeling is always the key to understanding the overall  significance of the message.

"Amber" Body Language Staying with the traffic light analogy, amber lights are often more subtle and difficult to perceive than congruent greens (positives) or reds (negatives) but there are clear signs to detect a communication dissonance. You can tell when a message is mixed by noticing things like: 

    -- Overall posture,

    -- The position of arms, hands, legs, feet, head and eyes.

    -- Gestures, small movements of arms, hands legs, feet, head and eyes.

In general, (and this is over-simplifying):  Closed,  tense or fidgety body language indicates negativity or anxiety. Being distant or pulling back, avoiding eye contact postures and gestures reveal uncomfortable or negative emotions and are common characteristics of amber lights. Likewise, touching of one's face or other parts of one's body, while listening, can reveal anxiety, discomfort, or disbelief.

Obviously, a brief discussion can't do justice to this complex field of study. But you can start to notice and begin to pay attention to signals which you may have overlooked before.

Tips for Dealing with "Amber" Lights

1. Be Aware of a Person's Non-Verbal and Body Language. Remember when a person speaks there are always two levels of meaning being communicated: the verbal content and the emotional feeling.

2. Pay particular attention to the differences between the what is being said in words and in the body language.

3. Don't "run" the amber light. If you find a discrepancy, don't ignore it.  Politely explain your confusion  and ask the person for clarification. 

Words and body language often don't match because many folks find it difficult to say no or disagree directly. A literal "yes" may, at the same time conceal a reluctance or anger that is also present. Ignoring this aspect of the response could result in disappointment or misunderstanding later on. It is OK to be direct and check it out. Learning to read body language is a skill which can help reduce unnecessary confusion and conflict.       

 The Reverend Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  4 25 2012.

 

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