The Micro-skills of Non-verbal Language

The American National Science Foundation discovered that we form an impression of someone in just three seconds (personal communication, 1984). Social scientists also claim that at least 80 per cent of our communication takes place on the non-verbal level (Young, 2005), with only 7 percent of emotion being conveyed by verbal means. Of the rest, 38 per cent is conveyed by voice, and 55 per cent by facial expression (Mehrabian, 1972). Beyond that, researchers have come to appreciate non-verbal behaviours as important channels of communication, serving the functions of:

  • Regulating conversations
  • Communicating emotions
  • Modifying verbal messages
  • Providing messages about the helping relationship
  • Giving insights into self-perceptions
  • Providing clues that people are not saying what they are thinking (Highlen and Hill, 1984).

When sitting with a helpee (this could be a client or a friend you are providing emotional support), you have multiple channels of non-verbal communication at your disposal.

Eye contact. The most important indicator that someone is listening, eye contact is a powerful communication tool. Making eye contact with the helpee conveys the helper’s confidence and involvement, and can be used to communicate caring and comfort. It needs to be used with caution, however, as there is wide variance between cultures as to the meaning of eye contact. Western cultures associate lack of eye contact with dishonesty, indifference, or shame, and also – in academic circles –  a lack of respect.

Conversely, in some cultures eye contact means the opposite. Navajo students at the University of New Mexico, for example, look down rather than looking the professor in the eye in order to convey humility and respect. If you do not look at helpees, they may think that you are not interested. If you stare fixedly, they may become uncomfortable, or perceive either seduction or aggression. In general, a moderate amount of eye contact, along with closely observing helpees to notice the effect on them, is recommended. When you really want to be heard by your helpee, eye contact will make your message more potent (Young, 2005).

Posture/Body position. Posture may be the most frequently noticed aspect of “body language”. The goal is to go for a relaxed body position. This may include leaning slightly forward, as part of your way of communicating involvement and interest. Being relaxed without informally lounging says, “I am comfortable with myself, and I have time to listen to you” (Young, 2005). To be tense would be to shift the focus off your helpee onto yourself, and might also spark tension in the helpee (Egan, 2006).

You may also wish to consider “matching” your helpee’s posture. The idea is that, early on, you mirror the way the helpee is sitting (without being unnatural, which would seem gimmicky to the care recipient). Done skilfully, this tends to communicate somewhat more intimacy to the helpee, rather than that you are superior as the helper. If, after a while, you sense that rapport has built up between you, you may slightly shift your position and observe whether the helpee follows you. If they do, it means that rapport has been established, and the helpee will be likely to experience a reduction in tension (Geldard and Geldard, 2005).

Facial expressions. Psychologists have distinguished six primary emotions: sadness, joy, anger, surprise, disgust, and fear. These register in our facial expressions regardless of culture (Ekman, 1975). In addition to the basic emotions, we can distinguish many more facial expressions, with estimates reaching 5000 (Blum, 1998). This means that, as a helper, you can gain much information from close observation of your helpee’s expressions. When they do not match what the person is saying, you have detected incongruence, and this tends to be an indicator of lack of self-awareness, conflict, or even deceit (hence the expression that someone acting in a hypocritical manner is “two-faced”).

Moreover, the sensitivity human beings have towards facial expression means that, as a helper, your facial expressions – whether you are aware of them or not – will communicate much to a helpee. In the Freudian tradition of helping, it was not deemed appropriate for the helper to have any overt reaction to the client’s emotions. The person-centered therapists, working in the tradition of Carl Rogers, believed that genuine expression was important for congruence. Whether you are in one of these camps theoretically at polar opposites to one another or somewhere in between, it is clear that your face can help the helpee to disclose more, or – if the helpee detects disdain, boredom, or that he is being made fun of – shut the door entirely.

Gestures. These physical motions are an element of attending that we use both to convey emotion and to emphasise important points. If our arms flail wildly, we are drumming our fingers, frequently shifting body position, checking the watch, or playing with something, we signal anxiety, impatience, or boredom. Looking like a stone statue, however, may communicate aloofness or lack of interest. Again, as with facial expressions and body position, the recommended approach is that you are moderately reactive, indicating friendliness and warmth. Your gestures should be casual, natural, and not distracting. Occasional head nodding for encouragement may be included (Young, 2005).

Tone of voice. The way that you use your voice in a helping encounter encompasses pitch, volume, intensity, inflection, speed of speaking, spacing of words, the type of emphasis, pausation, silence, and fluency. Just as we can tell much about the helpee’s emotional state from their tone of voice, so too does the helpee make assumptions based on hearing the helper’s voice.

If the helper conveys empathy and a calm concern with a relaxed, clear voice, the helpee receives the message that, despite the emotional turmoil with which he may have entered the helping session, the helper will not be overwhelmed. There is the sense that the helper has the capacity to stabilise the situation, and the helpee feels more calm and hopeful. You may wish to communicate that you understand the helpee’s feelings. Rather than exactly matching a helpee’s tone of voice (which might be quite agitated), this communication is best done through slight elevation of the voice or emphasis of certain words. The helpee then hears that you were listening to the emotions as well as the facts.

Physical distance and touching. Perhaps none of the non-verbal micro-skills are more vulnerable to cultural differences and ambiguous interpretation than physical distance or touching. Proxemics, the study of space utilisation in human interactions, dictates that the closer the distance, the more personal the interaction. Some cultures, such as Latin-based peoples, are comfortable speaking with as little as 4 inches between them, whereas people in Australia and New Zealand require a much larger “bubble” of personal space.

The “appropriate” distance in the United States is 90 – 120 cm (between 3 and 4 feet). If you put a desk or table between yourself and the helpee, it increases the feeling of formality, and also the emotional distance between you. On the other hand, if you are squashed with only a very small distance between you, the helpee may feel intimidated and anxious. Most probably, if you are setting up a helping meeting, the chairs should be between 1.6 metres (about 5 feet) and about 450 cm (about 18 inches). You may wish to let helpees arrange the chairs to a distance that suits them.

Touching is similarly open to interpretation. Using it during a helping encounter communicates caring and concern, especially when the helpee is dealing with grief. It also is shown to have a positive impact on the helping relationship. Touch can enhance bonding between the helper and depressed helpees, and may be used to emphasise important points. It does seem to increase the ability to influence the touched person (Driscoll, Newman and Seals, 1988; Willison & Masson, 1986).

Some counselling experts do not believe that hugs have any place in the helping relationship. Others have the experience that appropriate touch can enhance the session. If you do use it, these three guidelines are helpful to observe:

  • Touch should be appropriate to the situation
  • Touch should not impose a greater level of intimacy than the helpee can handle
  • Touch should not be patronising, or otherwise communicate a negative message (Fisher, Rytting, and Heslin, 1976).

A hug can be a special gesture at the end of a helping meeting, but it can also seem insincere if it is forced or if it is used routinely. Even if you do not touch or hug, you can convey the all-important sense of warmth through the other non-verbal means we have discussed. You will know that you have been successful when helpees open up, and/or when they appear visibly more calm and comforted.


  • Blum, D. (1998). Face it! Psychology Today, 31(5), 32 – 70. In Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Driscoll, M.S., Newman, D. L., & Seals, J.M. (1988). The effect of touch on perception of helpers. Counsellor Education and Supervision, 27, 113—115. In Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Egan, G. (2006). Essentials of Skilled Helping: Managing problems, developing opportunities. California: Thomson-Wadsworth.
  • Ekman, P. (1975). Universal smile: Face muscles talk every language. Psychology Today. 9(4), 35 – 39. In Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Fisher, J.S., Rytting, M., & Heslin, R. (1976). Affective and valuative effects of an interpersonal touch. Sociometry, 39, 416-421. In Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Geldard and Geldard (2005). Basic personal counseling: A training manual for counselors. Australia: Pearson.
  • Highlen and Hill (1984). Factors affecting client change in counseling. In Brown, S.D., & Lent, R.W. (Eds). (2008). Handbook of counseling psychology (4th ed.), pp 334 – 396. New York: Wiley.
  • Willison, B.G., & Masson, R.L. (1986). The role of touch in therapy: An adjunct to communication. Journal of Counseling and Development, 64, 497—500.
  • Young, M.E. (2005). Learning the art of helping: Building blocks and techniques. New Jersey: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.