Body language plays an important role in our interpersonal relationships as well as in our Counselor roles. Studies have shown that about 60-65% of communication is through non-verbal behaviors. This can include our posture, hand movements, facial expressions, eye contact, extreme movements and tone of voice. Read on to learn more about body language in counseling and what your clients’ body language really means.
Using communication methods such as text and email does not include body language, which can easily lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings between two people. These forms of communication leave room for personal biases, thoughts, and emotions to influence our interpretation of what is said.
Someone driving the car can send you a voice text that is 2-4 words long. Without knowing that person is driving, you may think that you are bothering them or that they are offended by you. However, if we have a phone conversation with someone in the same situation, we can hear characteristics in their speech that indicate they are paying attention or investing in what we are sharing.
What is body language?
As counselors, we learn to pay attention to our client’s body language in and outside of counseling sessions. Our client’s body language is often unconscious and can express their thoughts and feelings more accurately than what they share. For example, if you notice that one of your clients is behaving differently from previous sessions, you can ask them how they are doing. If their response is something like “okay” or “I’m doing fine,” you can decide to back off when you notice that they’re not making eye contact, that they’re as far back in their chair as possible, and that they’re sitting with their arms crossed. This is an example of being able to see the disconnect between what the client is sharing with us verbally and what their body language is telling us. It is critical that counselors pay attention to inconsistency with their body language and shared thoughts and emotions when assessing risk of harm to self and others.
As with other topics in counseling, it is important for Counselors to interpret our client’s therapy body language by integrating it into the appropriate context. For example, the client may be sitting with arms and legs crossed, appearing to be sad or simply cold. Additionally, there are cultural differences that may affect the pitch, volume, pitch, and tone of the client’s voice that we must consider.
The client’s body language is often included in assessments such as the Mental Status Examination (MSE). This information, along with advisory watchwords, can help identify risk factors that our clients may struggle with. This can be useful information to include in ongoing notes to monitor your client’s nonverbal behavior as you work with them.
Types of body language in therapy
Body language therapists look for different aspects of non-verbal communication. It includes the three principles of body language identified by M. Pell. Be aware of the physical space the customer chooses between them and you will be an example of proxemics. For example, if your client has a choice of chairs to sit in their meeting, does they choose to sit closer or further away from you? A customer’s choice of location can help gauge their comfort in your shared space. Proxemics also involves changes in non-verbal communication between different individuals. If you meet with a client individually and in a family or couples counseling session, you may notice these changes.
Kinesics refers to specific human body movements. This category includes the actions we visually observe in the session:
Sitting with crossed arms and sometimes legs is known as “closed” posture. By sitting this way, the client’s limbs protect their body, which may be a way they are unconsciously trying to protect themselves. This may indicate uncomfortable body language, the client is anxious, not open to sharing, unwilling to engage, or has not yet developed trust and rapport.
Customers who are leaning back in their seats, with their heads down and not looking directly at you, may feel uncomfortable or nervous at this point. This can also be considered sad body language. Also, constantly moving in their seats and fidgeting can mean they are anxious or worried.
The client’s uncomfortable body language may include hand movements and an inability to keep the hands still. Customers with clenched fists or squirming in their seats may feel angry or tense. As postural cues, sitting with an object such as a bag, purse, or pillow on your lap can be an unconscious defensive posture.
Facial expressions are the most studied aspect of nonverbal behavior. The study identified 6 facial expressions that are recognized on a cross-cultural basis. This is powerful information because it means we can communicate with others without using any spoken words. Six facial expressions such as surprise, fear, disgust, anger, sadness and happiness can be recognized.
Eye contact is a form of non-verbal communication that can tell us a lot, but there are cultural differences to consider. For example, in Japan, making eye contact can be a sign of disrespect, which can lead to not making eye contact with a customer of this cultural background. Without this or a similar cultural context, individuals who avoid eye contact may use body language to indicate that they are afraid or sad, nervous or anxious. Looking away while speaking can be an indicator that the customer is lying.
Paradil is another category of nonverbal behavior that can be informative during therapy sessions. Paralanguage refers to the prosody, rate, rhythm, tone, and pitch of the client’s speech.
Research conducted by M. Pell in 2009 showed that participants can accurately identify a person’s emotions when speaking in a foreign language. This study examined the presence of anger, disgust, fear, sadness, joy, and neutrality in Spanish, English, German, and Arabic. Only data participants had to judge what was said by the paralanguage aspects of the individual’s speech.
There are many tones of voice that we can get during a counseling session. It can be formal, serious, optimistic, respectful, ambitious and sad. For example, someone who speaks slowly and softly may feel sad, embarrassed, or hesitant about what to share.
Someone who speaks with pressure or rapid speech may be anxious, nervous, excited, or passionate at the time. Whereas someone with slow speech may be sad or confused, or still forming their thoughts.
Body Language and Mental Health
When we review the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, we can see that a number of mental health disorders affect nonverbal communication. Mental health issues are an example of context to consider when assessing a client’s body language.
For example, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia may present with flat affect, poor eye contact, negative symptoms, and strange postures. Without knowing the individual’s mental health diagnosis, these behaviors will come to the fore during therapy sessions. Understanding their diagnosis can help you narrow down what behaviors are typical for your client during sessions.
Other mental health conditions that may affect a client’s body language include Autistic Disorder, ADHD, Substance Intoxication, Substance Withdrawal, Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder, and PTSD.
Final Thoughts on Body Language in Counseling
Thank you for reading our resource on body language in counseling. As much as we observe our customers’ body language, they pay attention to ours. Our clients can learn our attentiveness, focus, positivity/negativity and coordination. For example, if we conduct an intake session and write responses into the program, we run the risk of making the client feel as though we are not giving them their full attention. In addition, we may miss opportunities to reflect on behaviors they exhibit, such as smiling.
Often we work with individuals who are interested in improving their mental health and wellness. For many, this is a difficult process and weakness can be uncomfortable. If we speak quickly or use a tone of voice that is not perceived as neutral or welcoming, clients may be reluctant to share with us.
In an ideal environment, Counselors have time to themselves between sessions where we can connect with ourselves and use our own emotion regulation skills as needed. This can include deep breathing, grounding exercises, stretching and meditation. Even if it’s just a small window to yourself, take the time to check in and take care of your own needs.
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- American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5c ed., text rev.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787
- Foley, GN, & Gentile, JP (2010). Non-verbal communication in psychotherapy. Psychiatry (Edgmont)7(6), 38–44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2898840/#B10
- Pell, M, D., Monetta, L., Paulman, S., Kotz, SA (2009). Recognizing Emotions Abroad Language Journal of Nonverbal Behavior33, 107-120. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10919-008-0065-7
- Uono, S. and Hietanen, JK (2015). The perception of eye contact in the West and in the East: a cross-cultural research.PloS One10(2),e0118094.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4340785/#:~:text= %20 fact%2C%20%20Japanese%20culture,their%20peripheral%20vision%20%5B2%5D