On a night train speeding from Florence to Cortona, Italy I was alarmed to discover I couldn’t read the station signs in the dark. Afraid I would miss my stop, I asked a stranger where to get off. I did not speak Italian; she spoke no English. Nevertheless, she understood my question and was able to communicate with perfect clarity, by gestures, that it was not the next stop but the one after that.
Actual words may be the least important part of communication. We “speak” with our eyes, touch, tone of voice. Carl Rogers, the noted psychologist, said “Total attention feels like love.” My dad could not say “I love you,” but from earliest childhood I had no doubt. His face lit up when I walked in the room. He spent endless hours happily teaching me games (and letting me win), attending my band practices, playing catch. I knew in my depths that I was the apple of my father’s eye.
Sometimes the words are right but the nonverbal clues give it all away. We all know how it feels to be saying something you really want the other person to hear, and they are texting. Or looking around the room. Or nodding off to sleep. It feels disrespectful. It is dismissive.
Here’s the takeaway: when you’re in a tough conversation, be fully engaged. Turn off the cellphone or tv. Face the person. Look into the other person’s eyes. Lean forward. Nod when you understand. Smile if appropriate. Touch the other’s hand in sympathy. Be aware of your tone. Sometimes words are the least of it.
Have you had a significant nonverbal exchange? Tell us about it!