Watching the debate last night, and seeing the visual difference between the two participants left no doubt in the minds of many as to whom the clear winner was. The words matter little, especially when many believe politicians have a different concept of truth and spin so-called facts to suit their arguments, or perhaps their constitutes.
Communication is key, but words are only a small part of it. All of our lives we are impacted by communication, regardless of whether it’s things we tell ourselves, or things others tell us. Much of what we recognize and believe stems from non-verbal language. Beginning with our earliest relationships, before we can speak, how we are approached and interacted with impacts us greatly, and often throughout our lives. Much has been written on the subject of early attachments and how those relationships affect our adult lives. At the heart of those relationships is the communication of messages which we internalize. This communication takes place at a pre-verbal level. After we learn to speak and exchange ideas, non-verbal messages still transmit more to us, and what is received is often acknowledged at a level below conscious thought. For instance, we recognize danger without conscious thought, or we are attracted to a person by something in their smile or their eyes. We don’t think about this, we just know.
Researchers estimate that non-verbal communication accounts for between 50 percent and 90 percent of the meaning receivers interpret in face-to-face situations. According to University of Pittsburgh Political Communications Professor Jerry Shuster, 85 percent of what an audience takes is what they glean from mannerisms and facial expressions.
When nonverbal messages conflict with verbal messages the nonverbal message is more likely to be believed. As social workers, we should be aware of this. Incongruence means something, to us and to our clients. It is often such incongruence clinical workers challenge.
It’s very difficult to continually monitor ones body language. Some reactions are near instantaneous, such as facial signals of fear or disgust, and are also universally recognized. Unfortunately, if we do not attend to our nonverbal signals we can unintentionally send the wrong message. Was President Obama’s head tilted because he was at a disadvantage from the more powerful, robust display put on by his opponent, or was he giving the words he heard thought?
Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. In a 2010 joint study conducted by Columbia and Harvard researchers, Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance, found that: “Posing in displays of power caused advantaged and adaptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes, and these findings suggest that embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioral choices.” Things like our posture, expressions, and tone of voice affect both how we feel, and how we are perceived, and moreover, can impact behavior.
A smile a day may not actually keep the doctor away and standing tall when feeling low won’t change someone’s situation overnight, but the research suggests it can impact how we are perceived by those around us, and more importantly, by us on an internal level, which may then impact how we navigate the world.
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