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Infant Toddler Development Training
Module 2, Lesson 3

Non-Verbal Skills

Experts contend that most (indeed, up to 90%) of the content of a message is non-verbal. Imagine yourself in the role of 'caregiver' to a toddler with special needs. You are meeting with the Early Steps team to discuss strategies for implementing services. While the results of the evaluation report are reviewed, you notice a shocked expression on the face of one of the team members. The team member becomes aware of her expression and tries to reassure you that everything is fine.

Facial expressions often communicate much more than words. In fact, research shows that when there is a discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal messages, we tend to discredit the verbal message before discrediting the non-verbal (Hepworth & Larsen, 1986). Consider how the following behaviors would affect you:

  1. Your primary service provider looks at her watch 2 or 3 times while meeting with you (the caregiver) in your home
  2. During a meeting, a team member yawns and sighs while you express an opinion that you consider to be very important.
  3. You notice the parent/caregiver gazing out the window as you try to explain an important intervention strategy. Obviously he/she is not engaged and you wonder if they are thinking about other things or discounting your message. What now?
  4. During a meeting, a fellow team member fidgets, shakes her foot and shifts position constantly while you summarize the transition plan for a family.

In each of these cases, the non-verbal behavior of the person in question reveals a great deal. These examples highlight the importance of 1) becoming aware of your own body language and 2) tuning into the body language displayed by others. As we discuss non-verbal behaviors and expressions, keep in mind that such acts are culturally dependent. For example, a firm handshake is usually valued in Western cultures, but it is considered inappropriate by some Native American individuals.

  • Posture
    Your posture is one expression of your level of interest and attention. In Western cultures, interest is expressed by facing the person that you are speaking to, maintaining an 'open' posture and leaning forward slightly (Egan, 1986).
  • Eye Contact
    In Western cultures, regular eye contact is considered to be an expression of sincerity, interest and attention. Very little eye contact usually conveys a reluctance to 'connect' with someone, while a fixed gaze is usually interpreted as aggressive or intimidating. Keep in mind that eye contact can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect in some cultures (Beckman, 1996). Be sure to attend to the person that you are talking to and ask for clarification if you think you might be inadvertently offending them.
  • Facial Expression
    Facial expressions are very powerful indicators of our thoughts and feelings. In general, your facial expression should reflect the content of the discussion. It should be appropriate to the emotional tone of the discussion.
  • Tone of Voice
    Your tone of voice and the intonation of the words that you use can communicate a great deal. Consider the following examples:
    • "You did a great job." (said kindly, with a friendly tone)
    • "You did a great job." (said sarcastically, with a cutting tone)
    • "Thanks a lot." (said kindly)
    • "Thanks a lot." (said sarcastically)

In the above examples, the tone of voice completely changes the meaning of the message. Make sure your tone of voice matches your intent.

Thus far, we have discussed verbal and non-verbal components of effective communication. In the paragraphs that follow, barriers to effective communication will be described. As you read this section, consider your own personal challenges and the challenges that are present in your early intervention team.

Barriers to Effective Communication

Both verbal and non-verbal behaviors can interfere with communication. In the previous section on non-verbal communication, we saw how behaviors such as yawning or looking at one's watch can negatively impact interactions. Several other team behaviors can be destructive to the communication process. Examples of some counterproductive behaviors are listed below.

  • Moralizing: Telling team members what they 'should' or 'ought' to do. Such statements usually have a critical tone. Rather than moralizing, offer suggestions for behaviors that might work better.
  • Offering advice prematurely: It is often tempting to jump in with solutions and answers to other peoples' problems. Some team members feel a certain 'pressure' to quickly solve problems for families. In most cases, such advice is not welcome. Unsolicited, premature advice "frequently ignores strengths in the family, inadvertently conveys an attitude of superiority, and encourages dependence" (Beckman, 1996, p. 42). Instead of offering advice, work with your team to generate a number of possible solutions.
  • Judging, criticizing and blaming: Whether communicated verbally or non-verbally, these behaviors are clearly unproductive. Most people know when someone approaches them with a judgmental attitude. Immediately, the person on the receiving end feels threatened, disrespected and belittled. Future collaborative efforts will be jeopardized.
  • Humor: Humor is a wonderful tool for building relationships, but when dealing with sensitive situations, it is best to use humor judiciously. Excessive use of humor can be offensive and inappropriate (Hepworth & Larsen, 1986). Ridiculing and teasing are almost always inappropriate team behaviors (Briggs, 1997). Such behaviors often result in hurt feelings or counterattacks.
  • Dominating: A team member can dominate meetings by talking too much, interrupting others, asking rapid-fire closed-ended questions, giving 'expert' advice or presenting lengthy arguments (Hepworth & Larsen, 1986). Such behavior shuts out contributions from other team members.
  • Reassurances and diminishing responses: Statements such as "cheer up," "it's not that bad," and "everything is going to be fine" are usually well intentioned but inappropriate (Briggs, 1997). Often times, the person on the receiving end feels resentful and slighted by such comments. When someone is experiencing deep pain, sadness, or disappointment, it does not help to hear such light, flippant chatter.
  • Jargon: Overuse of professional jargon can result in a number of communication problems. Each professional discipline has its own unique set of expressions and phrases. Professional jargon may facilitate communication among people in the same discipline, but it hinders communication in teams composed of people from different disciplines. Excessive use of jargon will result in misunderstandings. It will also leave some team members feeling 'out of the loop,' because they do not understand the terms that are being used. The same problem occurs with excessive use of acronyms.

Having reviewed the basic components of communication in teams, we now move into a more specific form of communication - imparting information to caregivers. The following section summarizes the research in this area.


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