Therapy’s Nonverbal Dance : Are you in step with your clients?
By Steve Andreas
Q: I know that getting immediate, nonverbal feedback from clients is essential to knowing how they’re responding in a session. How can I increase my sensitivity to this?
A: Being sensitive to a client’s nonverbal shifts in facial expression, posture, voice tone, and other areas is certainly important in establishing and maintaining the therapeutic relationship, which much research shows is essential for successful therapy. However, noticing nonverbal shifts isn’t enough; it’s important to know what those nonverbal shifts are related to and what they mean. To do this, you need to be active in eliciting responses, both verbally and nonverbally.
For instance, if clients verbally assent to what you’re saying while nonverbally disagreeing, it’s important to pick this up immediately, so that you can address the incongruence. If you want to detect the nonverbal signs of agreement, disagreement, and ambivalence, you can say, “I’d like to ask you to do something that may seem a bit strange, but it can be useful to us in working together. I want you to think of something that you fully agree with; it doesn’t matter what it is, and don’t tell me what it is, just nod when you’ve thought of something.” Then notice any nonverbal shifts. The client’s attention will be focused on the task, while yours is on the response to it.
Some clients will immediately think of something, and respond quickly, often before they nod. Others may take a little longer as they go through a brief search process before deciding on something and nodding. You want to notice what’s different compared to their state before you gave them the instruction, and the speed of their response is useful information. If you want to be more covert, you can say, “So your name is Fred Freed, is that right?” and notice his response. If you don’t notice anything, you can ask about something else that you’re pretty sure he’ll agree with, until you do detect the nonverbal response.
Clients are likely to be aware of smiles, nods, frowns, and other facial expressions with commonly accepted meanings. Since these can be faked, they aren’t reliable indicators of unconscious signaling. Clients are much less likely to be aware of small shifts in breathing, posture, head position, and so forth, so these indicators are much more reliable. Many responses to positive states can be categorized as parasympathetic: relaxation, movement, leaning forward slightly, pinker skin color, slower breathing and heart rate. Other responses will be individual to the client, and may include slight head tilts or movements, change in direction of the gaze, and small movements of fingers or hands.
Then you can say, “Thanks, now think of something that you completely disagree with. Again it doesn’t matter what it is, and don’t tell me what it is, just nod when you’ve thought of something.” The contrast between the response to this and the previous instruction will highlight what was different in the responses. Many responses to negative states can be categorized as sympathetic ones: tension, stillness, moving backward slightly, whiter skin color, faster breathing and heart rate. But many other shifts will be individual to a particular client. One client showed a slightly open mouth in agreement, but a closed one in disagreement; another looked up for agreement and down for disagreement.
If you don’t detect any clear shifts, you can ask the client to think about agreement again, and the contrast will make it easier for you to notice more. Finally, you can say, “Now think of something you’re uncertain about,” and, typically, you’ll see a mixture of what you noticed for agreement and disagreement. By asking specific questions like these, you can discover what nonverbal reactions are involved when this particular client agrees, disagrees, or is uncertain. You can use the same kind of inquiry about anything else that you think is relevant to your therapy, dividing it into positive, negative, and neutral: like/dislike, curious/bored, commitment to carrying out a plan, and so on.
You can do many other things to increase your sensitivity, all of which involve shifting your attention. Many therapists need to pay more attention to the nonverbal expressive music of the clients’ voices, rather than the content of what they’re saying. If a therapist looks aside while clients are talking, it can be easier to notice tonal and tempo shifts. But if a therapist looks down while they’re talking, and then looks up only as they finish, most of the nonverbal responses have already occurred, and are thus impossible to notice.