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Verbal and Non Verbal Communication

A basic conversation with a family member/friend/coworker says so much more than just words. There are many layers to every dialogue ranging from using your words to making eye contact. We all depend on those cues to understand the gist of what is being communicated. Have you ever recognized how you say “hi” and wave to a coworker you just met and is looking at you?

Eye contact, a definite conversation starter and you continue the conversation with verbal (saying “Hi”) and nonverbal (waving) language.

Understanding some unspoken norms and picking up on social conversational cues comes in handy when working/supporting people with special needs. We often find ourselves in situations where people we support do not rely on spoken words to communicate their needs and wants which is why it becomes an integral part for us and the people we support to recognize the nonverbal language.

A few things that make up the nonverbal communication would include*:

- Eye Contact

- Facial Expressions

- Gestures

- Posture and Body orientation

- Proximity

- Tone of Voice, Volume, Pitch - Para-linguistics/ Para-language

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”

Peter Drucker

Let’s try and decipher these nonverbal ways of communication:

1. Maintaining a proper eye contact opens up dialogue. It let’s the other person know that you are ready for a conversation and you have their attention.

2. Facial Expressions for example a smiling or a happy face expresses interest in maintaining a conversation.

3. Using our hands to point to something, for example, is a way we use gestures to indicate what we are referring to along with our words.

4. Your posture and body orientation suggests a nonverbal cue more than your words. It depicts your level of interest and your focus of attention on what is being said.

5. Proximity plays a major role in how you make the other person feel comfortable in a conversation. It is important to maintain a good distance when speaking to someone. Standing at an arm’s length to the person you are speaking to is a socially acceptable distance.

Appropriate distance not only makes room for you to process all the nonverbal cues for the other person but also supports staying in your personal space while expressing yourself.

A big NO-NO as depicted by the individuals at The Owl House!

When we speak of Para-linguistics or Para-language, we refer to the pitch of voice, rate, voice quality*. It adds to the nonverbal cues we pick up on during any conversation.

Non-verbal communication and People with Special Needs

When we work with people with special needs, we need to consider that not at all the verbal and nonverbal communication looks the same. The goal is to work on social cues and nonverbal communication. Nevertheless, people tend to have their own way of communicating. It requires observation, time, patience and an open mind to grasp the cues and work together to enhance that communication.

Relating it to our daily life

For instance, a student of mine does not prefer making eye contact but puts his hand out to the educator or a peer when he is greeting.

We are constantly using nonverbal and verbal communication to interact with everyone around us. Relating it to people with Special Needs can vary from person to person. We all have different ways to communicate and the people who best understand us are the ones close to you personally or work with you professionally.

When we talk about Verbal communication, we need to remember that words play as important a role as nonverbal communication. Using positive words, full sentences, framing comprehensive phrases to communicate the needs and wants all contribute to our effective communication.

It is crucial to understand the impact of verbal/spoken words when having a dialogue with someone. It not only helps express our needs and wants but also be receptive of what the other person might be expecting from the conversation. For example, following up on “I am fine” with “And, how are you?”

The spoken words we use on a daily basis in turn work on our self-confidence to be a part of conversations. It is important to practise these skills at home or at work. The same goes for People with Special Needs. Repetition works wonders when used for a positive behavior change or to continue working on engaging conversations.

“The ability to listen as important as the ability to speak”

- Sherly Sandberg

Somethings we work on together at The Owl House:

• Modelling positive non verbal cues (like shaking hands when greeting, using phrases like “excuse me” or “please” or “thank you” and behavior for the individuals we support (waiting for your turn to speak, demonstrating facial expressions to reciprocate, etc.

• Encouraging communicative behaviors to become a part of the routine or nature (You may want to check out our Blog on Importance of Routines)*

• Repeating phrases like “May I go to..” or “Can I have..” or “I want…” instead of using a single word for the subject of the matter.

• Using picture cards (pictures of the activity) to start conversation and engage our individuals in a dialogue.

• Asking follow up questions to keep the conversation going and encouraging use of more verbal words along with nonverbal cues

• Pointing to a task that needs to be completed as a gestural cue for individuals

Words and Behaviors in our daily life

People supporting/working with individuals with Special Needs often overlook the fact that our nonverbal cues and behavior acts a guide. People with special needs would pick up on cues like putting your hand out to initiate greeting or saying please, thank you and/or excuse me, giving a high five when you raise your hand, etc based on situations.

A term called “Learned Behavior”* is used for behaviors we learn over time by observing, reciprocating and practicing. For People with Special needs, especially on the Autism Spectrum, it is crucial to follow these patterns of behavior through positive role modelling to support the learning of nonverbal cues.

Today’s takeaway!

Making it personal!

Think of the times when you recognized your own communication patterns or of those that you care for;

1. Making eye contact when speaking to someone

2. Automatically waving your hand when you meet a friend/coworker

3. Tapping someone on the shoulder when getting their attention

4. Turning your body towards someone you are talking to

5. Pointing to something you want the other person to see

6. Smiling when someone tells you a happy experience

7. Pointing to your wrist when asking someone the time without using words

8. Giving a thumbs up to someone who did a good job

9. Putting your hand up for a high five and the other person automatically reciprocating

Tell us some examples of verbal and nonverbal communication that happen around you.

Or share some ways you communicate verbally or non verbally with a person with special needs around you.



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