It is my opinion, as a qualified Life Coach, that a high emphasis should be place on learning the foundations of effective nonverbal communication in order to understand human behaviour from a counselling perspective. This may seem like a bold statement to the reader; however, I have first-hand experience of my own poor use of nonverbal communication as a Life Coach and holistic therapist. When a client comes to see a counsellor, they are entering a relationship that acts as a metaphorical dance. If the counsellor steps on the client’s toes and does not time their dance moves, then the rhythm is affected, and this can wear away at the relationship. I believe that the client wants to feel like they are safe and in good hands that are experienced in this type of dance, so they are relying on the counsellor to know what they are doing so they can guide the client every step of the way. Below I will review various moments in my own sessions with clients where I failed provide adequate nonverbal communication, and possible solutions I can implement in the future to avoid such mistakes, and therefore provide a better service for my clients.
A simple smile can be taken for granted in a casual conversation but speaks volumes to clients during a Life Coaching session. In my experience I have noticed that my clients, whether consciously or unconsciously, are looking for signals to either validate their insecurities or confirm they are dealing with the right person for them. In my case it was the former. During a conversation with my client I unconsciously smiled when she was referring to something in her life. She read it incorrectly and thought I was not taking her issue seriously. I unfortunately communicated the wrong emotion in that moment. It was noted by DeVito (2019) that one’s nonverbal communication cues, in this case, the use or misuse of a smile, forms an impression on the receiver, and assists the receiver to create judgements on the sender, and the overall encounter. Going forward I will pay closer attention to my facial gestures during interpersonal interactions and strive to avoid such unnecessary miscommunication.
Over time I have nurtured the use of silence, but I can admit that it is not an easy task as it often feels like I am creating an awkward silence in the room. Casual conversations do not often allow for this sort of tension but is a valuable tool to use in Life Coaching. While counselling in the past I would pose a question that would make my client think and before they had time to process the question I would come in with a clarifying statement or question. I assumed their silence was an unconscious message telling me that the question was too difficult or complex. Silence is said to happen suddenly, which contrasts the sounds preceding it, and therefore, helps to enhance it, which in the therapy setting is regarded as an event which the therapist and client share (Poyatos, 2002; Drucker, 2017). Extended moments of silence are often forced out of the interpersonal interactions, as though it is an awkward experience to be avoided. However, when used skilfully during a counselling session can regulate the conversation (DeVito, 2019), and help the client to experience the gravity of what is being communicated.
The clothes one wears as a respectable counsellor tell a nonverbal message to the client. I usually dress smart/casual when I see clients, but I chose, one a particular Friday to wear jeans. One of my clients immediately picked it and commented about it, saying that she had never seen me dress casual before. McCarthy (2017) extensively explored the impact of how a therapists clothing may affect the client/therapist relationship and found that it played a significant role in creating first impressions. This leads me to think that my clients first impression of my dress sense was expected in subsequent sessions in order to convey a sense of congruence in me. To create erratic changes to oneself may be unsettling for clients and this must be respected. My clients must feel at ease when they see me, and it is my duty to honour that in every way.
When I first started seeing people professionally as a Life Coach, I also started seeing a counsellor to assist me with de-briefing between sessions. He informed me that it is important that I should see myself and my workspace through the eyes of my clients. He pointed out how vulnerable clients may feel as they enter an office they are unfamiliar with, and then must share intimate details about their life with a person they have never met. Unfortunately, I found myself displaying very dominant nonverbal cues in the way I presented myself. This was a truly remarkable exercise and pointed many areas that needed refining. Persons et.al (1974) found that female clients rated women therapists more helpful than their male counterparts. Therefore, since I would unconsciously be perceived as less helpful, it would be even more important that I tone down my dominant displays and present myself openly, with a sense of calm and guidance.
I tend to cross my arms and legs when seated. While in a social setting, this kind of posture holds little value, but in a therapy session in can appear closed off to the client. In this regard I was limiting my interpersonal effectiveness by failing to recognise and read my own nonverbal messages, and how my nonverbal cues may have been modulating, and potentially creating contradicting messages (DeVito, 2019). I realise now how important the use visibly tuning in to clients is, and how necessary it is to apply the use of Gerard Egan’s SOLER model into every session.
While these real-world experiences were challenging for me, both at the time and while reflecting on them after the fact, I can attest to the power of knowledge and wisdom gained, as I was able to learn valuable lessons from my mistakes. Buchanan (2007, 2009, as cited by DeVito, 2017) and Pentland (2008, 2010, as cited by DeVito, 2017) discovered that we use nonverbal signals to “talk” to each other and make up how we are influenced by each other. Therefore, as a counsellor, I must ensure that I go into the counselling session with awareness of such factors. My clients need to feel safe and respected during their sessions, especially since I am a relative stranger in their lives. When counselling is done masterfully, it appears natural and effortless, yet displays high levels of professionalism and empathy toward the client.
Positive outcomes in therapy have been observed when participants applied effective nonverbal skills (Mariska pdf). While continued education in the field of counselling is crucial to every counsellor, if this basic step is overlooked, or not giving its due respect, the budding counsellors career may have dire consequences. Counselling relationships, like all relationships, require trust, especially due to the nature of Life Coaching. Therefore, I feel, that if I can learn to master nonverbal communication at an early stage in my career, I will not have to experience any further pitfalls in this regard, and further, I will build a practise based on trust, integrity and value.
Thanks for reading
Donovan – Life Coach
DeVito, J.A. (2019). Nonverbal messages. The interpersonal communication book. (15th ed., pp. 131-169). Pearson education.
Drucker, P.F. (2017). Silence as communication. In H.M. Ruitenbeek (Ed.), The Analytic Situation: How Patient and Therapist Communicate (pp. 48). Taylor & Francis
McCarthy, M. (2017). A psychotherapeutic exploration of the impact of the therapists clothing in the room. Dublin Business School. https://esource.dbs.ie/handle/10788/3352
Mariska, M.A, Harrawood, L.K. (2013). Understanding the unsaid: Enhancing multicultural competence through nonverbal awareness. VISTAS Online, (64). https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-year2/vistas-2013/page/7
Persons, R. W., Persons, M. K., & Newmark, I. (1974). Perceived helpful therapists’ characteristics, client improvements, and sex of therapist and client. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 11(1), 63–65. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086318