Body language tells an alert person much more than we realize. Our bodies are actually controlled by our subconscious minds and subsequently not always in accordance with what we are saying. For example, when sitting with my son’s psychiatrist, if I sat with a straight back or with my legs a bit apart, it reinforced the fact that I felt at ease in my surroundings.
I didn’t, because I wasn’t at ease.
I remember our frequent visits to the psychiatric hospital to visit our son and had an appointment with his doctor. On one occasion, I was so upset by what the doctor had said, that I needed to go to the toilet, but … how could I leave my husband and son and maybe miss something important that transpired? So, I must have been squirming on my chair when the doctor asked me whether I was particularly upset that day. Then I blurted out; ‘Not more than usual but I HAVE to go to the toilet,’ and I fled.
When speaking to someone, If I leaned forward slightly, it showed that I was actively listening, but, if I leaned away, that was a signal that I was disinterested in the conversation.
If I crossed my arms, it was a visual clue that I was turned off by what was going on around me. But, if I hung my arms comfortably at my sides or let my hands lie loosely in my lap, it told the other person that I was open to hearing what he/she had to say. Folding my hands loosely in my lap made me seem more credible and assured.
A handshake is one of the most important nonverbal communication cues as it can set the mood for the entire conversation. A firm handshake, not a crushing one, gives one instant credibility – while a weak handshake makes one appear fragile.
I knew that it was advisable to make direct eye contact although there was no need to stare. I read somewhere that it was a good idea to remember to blink and look away occasionally. Good eye contact shows interest in the conversation. At the hospital I was upset and not always interested but I kept the body language rules I’d read in my mind all the time. I was probably afraid that the doctor would think that I was the problem even though in my heart of hearts I knew that I was not because no one can cause schizophrenia. This is worth repeating:
NO ONE CAN CAUSE S C H I Z O P H R E N I A.
No one can cause s c h i z o p h r e n i a.
It was a good idea to show empathy with simple actions of agreement like a nod of my head or a smile. Those actions let the medical staff know that I was on my son’s side and that I was able to identify with his plight.
Taking notes on paper or on an iPad let the staff know that I valued what they were saying and that I was engaged in the conversation – even though I wasn’t always. Taking notes is not appropriate in every situation. I had to use my judgment.
If I felt that I was talking too fast, I took a deep breath – held it for a second or two then let it out. I always focused on slowing down my speech and body movements. I thought that it made me appear more confident and contemplative. It also helped calm me down when I felt nervous which I nearly always did in the company of psychiatric professionals.
I always endeavored not to glance at the wall clock the way psychologists and psychiatrists do, as this signaled that I did not really want to be present. Of course I didn’t but I had to keep those appointments in the hospital, now didn’t I? If I looked at the floor or the ground, it told people that I was either shy or disinterested.
We all have the odd itch that needs scratching but touching one’s face repeatedly shows dire nervousness. So does picking at things – whether it is at clothes, a notebook or one’s fingernails. It was far better to leave them alone as this demonstrated boredom and disapproval.
If I sat on the edge of my chair, it communicated that I was literally on edge both mentally and physically. It was far better to sit back. Leaning into a conversation made me appear engaged.
I made an effort not to tap my fingers, my feet or even my pen as that would have indicated impatience or signs of stress.
I was told to place items that I needed to the side of me because if they were in front of my body, it might have indicated shyness or resistance and that was not the picture I wanted to paint. Of course all of this had become quite natural by this time. I’d had ample practice by then.
I knew that it was important to be situated close to the other person but not too close as that might have made him/her feel uncomfortable.The other person would have known instinctively if I were faking a smile. A true smile comes from within. If I needed to smile, I thought of a happy memory.
To this day I am aware of body language all the time – both mine and that of others as it allows me to learn a whole lot about people.