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Man places hand on shoulder of boy to comfort him

Non-verbal communication

Verbal communication is vital but there are other ways in which we communicate and let people know how we are feeling, and these will be used even more frequently than words.

The way in which we communicate by non-verbal means can be wide and varied. It can include:

  • Reliability and punctuality – express that you value another person’s time by making and sticking to arrangements.
  • Facial expressions – smiles, frowns, raised eyebrows and twisted lips all convey messages.
  • Physiological responses e.g. quickened breath, blushing, paleness etc. Again, all convey messages, although there may be aspects of these which we have less control over.
  • Physical distance/closeness – attunement in body positioning: leaning forward/holding back.

All of the above are important in communicating with children and young people. However, facial expressions are perhaps the most important as they will be the most consistent way in which children experience us.

Petrie comments that whether we mean to or not, our faces can convey a great deal of meaning. She focuses on the acts of smiling, gazing and frowning.

  • Smiling – these are positive warm messages but many people will recognise an insincere smile when they see one.
  • Gazing – looking directly into the face of another person, perhaps gazing into their eyes.
  • Frowning – a frown can show that someone is puzzled, anxious or displeased.

All of the above are very powerful but all can easily be misinterpreted. A simple exercise can illustrate how this can be the case. Next time you watch a television programme or film try turning off the sound. Concentrate on the faces of the actors and their facial expressions. Can you follow the story without words? What facial expressions give the clearest meaning? Reflect on this as we move to the next step.

The sources in the ‘See Also’ section below were used when creating this week’s materials - you can consult them for more information on the topic.

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This article is from the free online course:

Caring for Vulnerable Children

University of Strathclyde