Communication can seem simple. At its most fundamental level, it’s using language to get ideas across to other people.
Words are a part of communication, but only a portion. The majority of communication is made up of tone of voice and body language. So, it is important that we attempt to interpret and understand one another’s nonverbal communications (i.e., voice modulation, behaviors, and body language). This is critical for those who have language impairment.
Nonverbal Language as Communication
Language impairment can occur in one or both of a language’s constituent domains: expressive and receptive. An individual may have good expressive language but trouble with receptive language. This means that they can speak with some fluency but not fully understand what is being said to them. The opposite is sometimes true, too, where someone with good receptive language can understand what is being said to them but are unable to effectively speak or express their thoughts. This is why an ability to “read” nonverbal communication in any situation is important, but especially when working in human services.
Dr. Jeff Thompson—a psychologist who studied nonverbal communication—published research that described three areas to consider when trying to decipher nonverbal communication:
- and Context.
It should be noted that interpreting communication of any type includes error. By working with others, such as colleagues who also serve the people we support, we can increase the accuracy of interpretation.
According to Dr. Thompson, clusters are groupings of nonverbal behaviors. So, rather than interpreting one single behavior, we may want to consider them together.
For instance, one might be able to conclude that a person supported is experiencing anxiety if they are not making eye-contact, but they may also consider additional simultaneous behaviors like not facing the speaker, moving away from the speaker, and biting their nails as supporting evidence of the conclusion.
Congruence involves matching nonverbal communication with verbal communication. An example would be smiling at a person we support while saying, “Congratulations!”
Unfortunately, this can be a problem for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who may display incongruence. For instance, they may laugh in an anxiety-producing situation, and this could be taken as offensive by other parties. Being aware of this, in this case, would allow for effective intervention that could completely avoid any major outburst.
Lastly, we want to consider the context. This represents the environment in which the interaction is occurring, and the past interactions and power structure dynamics between the people involved.
The context can alter the meaning of body language that has a commonly understood definition. An example of this could be meeting a DSP and their person supported for the first time, and the person supported calls the long-term DSP a “jerk.” This typically would be seen as offensive; however, knowing the existing relationship could reveal that this is consensual banter and has occurred historically between the two.
Experience Informs Perception
Interpreting nonverbal behaviors is not always easy, and as it’s not always accurate. All behavior has meaning, and that meaning may not be what you first think it is.
For example, we may say a behavior by a person we support is “attention seeking.” This may be true, but why in this case? What is the function of the behavior? By looking beyond your initial reaction, something like a tantrum behavior may be communicating that the person supported doesn’t feel safe, though they may never have spoken this explicitly.
In doing our work, we must constantly examine our reactions and how our background and experiences might inform them. This causes us to have different definitions of behaviors. For example, my understanding of a tantrum would constitute broken items, loud yelling, perhaps cursing, or even threats. For others, a tantrum might be mild complaining. Neither is right nor wrong; our interpretations are based on life experience.
We need to keep an open mind to learning the people we support; challenging our own beliefs about others and the world; and growing our empathy for those who have challenges we may not. Learning a supported person—including ourselves—is an ongoing and ceaseless process. We need to support each other in this since it’s not always easy. It is absolutely typical and valid to be upset
by a person supported. We want to manage our reaction in healthy ways so we can achieve our mission of helping them live full and healthy lives.