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The Unspeakable Truth

In some ways, we all wear our hearts on our sleeve, even though most of us can’t quite put our finger on the details.

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

I was watching an interview with Keegan-Michael Key and found myself laughing out loud even before a single word was uttered. His gait, facial expression, and presence was immense, drawing the audience in to share in his joy as though we were privy to a delightful secret. His energy was intoxicating and contagious. My husband, and introvert like myself, remarked that he was extremely extroverted. That was putting it mildly.

I was reminded of something I read in the Collectively Free article Nonviolent Communication Is For The Privileged. In it, author Raffi Marhaba states “…nonverbal communication is a crucial part of how we communicate.” I agree with their criticism that Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication fails to emphasize this very important aspect of communication, instead focussing heavily on verbal expressions that at times come-off as awkward. It occurred to me that my interpretation of that book focused inwards, perhaps a predictable expression of my introversion. Yet, watching the animated extroverted Key, I realized that whether or not I speak, my body constantly portrays feelings, thoughts, and ideas.

Cue squirmy feeling from those that value their privacy.

Seriously, though, nonverbal communication is important to everyone. It means connection need not rely on words. On this week’s blog post about nonviolent communication, I invite to you to follow me down the rabbit hole of another NVC—nonverbal communication.

What is nonverbal communication? The easy answer is: anything that doesn’t involve words. Yes, I’m excluding the written word even though technically I’m not speaking. Except in my head. I just realized that I say the words in my head as I type, and now I can’t stop thinking about that. Distracting.

Anyway, where were we? Right. Nonverbal communication. Well, it includes body position, movement, posture, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and personal space. Does your personal space bubble change based on your mood and who you’re with? Mine, too.

I didn’t get far down the rabbit hole before I came across the name Joe Navarro, and ex-FBI agent that specialized in reading nonverbals to catch spies. Sounds glamourous. His book What Every Body Is Saying is a guide on speed-reading people. He debunks the common misconception that there exists a Pinocchio effect, some universal gesture that signals lying such as touching your face or looking up and to the right. This makes sense, considering individual experience and temperament is so varied. Instead, he looks at nonverbals holistically, adding up parts of a whole to glean insight. Is the person comfortable or uncomfortable? Relaxed or tense? There are a lot of moving parts (literally), some subtle and involuntary. It is nearly impossible for an individual to completely conceal their feelings. Pieces of truth leak out. It’s called emotional leakage.

Image by Tim Gouw on Upsplash

The short documentary Body Language Decoded: How Non-Verbal Communication Actually Works describes emotional leakage and what it reveals. Consider microexpressions: involuntary and brief facial expressions, such as a flash of anger before breaking into a smile. To most, they go unnoticed, but to a trained eye they can be incriminating. In some ways, we all wear our hearts on our sleeve, even though most of us can’t quite put our finger on the details.

I’ve often thought this about trauma—that I wear past traumas like stain I can’t wash out. A Psychology Today article about revictimization states, “… the most consistent predictor of future trauma exposure is a history of prior trauma exposure.” Do predators subconsciously detect vulnerability in past victims? Do involuntary nonverbals play a part? Maybe. Trauma can distort one’s sense of safety—sometimes resulting in hypervigilance, and other times with resilience. I’m proud of my high pain threshold and ability to perform under pressure, yet part of me remains curious about how the other half lives, with their easy smiles and calm confidence. It’s perhaps why I was so fascinated by Key’s pre-interview behaviour.

Like many people who feel uncomfortable in certain situations, I’ve often wished I could switch off maladaptive reactions to objectively safe environments. It got me to thinking about how communication is dynamic, changing the players as they participate. Though emotional leakage can betray one’s true feelings, perhaps a practical understanding of body reading could create genuine comfort. By focusing attention on another’s nonverbals, I might change my own.

A more radical idea is that deliberate body positioning on its own can change one’s mental state. Amy Cutty tackled that very question, summarized in her widely viewed 2012 TED Talk, and further supported by recent research. Cutty tells us that our posture influences our feelings and behaviour, specifically that assuming confident postures can boost confidence. I’ve tried it myself. It’s hard to say whether power posing changed my perspective, but either way it was a bit of fun. These types of findings are what fuels my curiosity in the human condition.

There is so much to learn from others if we just pay better attention. While I wonder if I’ll ever be astute enough to speed read others, I remind myself this is just scratching the surface. Mentalists so deeply study human behaviour that their insights seem magical. Particularly entertaining is Derren Brown who transcends reason while simultaneously claiming he possesses no special gift. It’s a little humbling. I guess if he can decipher where a person has vacationed recently with little more than few words, I can probably work out whether someone is uncomfortable with how close I’m standing.

How does your body language change with different people? Do you think nonverbal communication is more important than verbal? Does changing your posture change your mood?

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