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The Subtle Cues of Communication

June 1, 2018

“You cannot ‘not’ communicate.”

Communication Theory

In the world of communication theory, this is a common adage. Stated, it means that no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to refrain from communicating with those around you. Since most communication occurs through non-verbal cues that are transmitted both consciously and subconsciously, we communicate whether we want to or not.  Even silence is communicating something.  So when couples or family members say, “Our problem is that we don’t communicate with one another,” they are misinformed.  They are communicating a great deal.  It’s more likely that they aren’t communicating very effectively, and they often don’t like the messages that are being exchanged.

As human beings, we have the ability to transmit and detect very subtle cues from one another.  It compares to an emotional Wi-Fi system that each of us possesses, sending signals to the people in our proximity. Those people, in turn, have a corresponding Wi-Fi system that automatically receives and interprets those signals. This is happening whether we want it to or not. Unfortunately, these signals are subject to a great deal of misinterpretation.  

So where do these Wi-Fi signals come from and how are they transmitted?  Well, it’s a complex process that happens faster than our conscious mind can keep up with and more subtle than we can perceive.  Most of these signals are made up of different body gestures called micro-expressions; tiny movements that are almost imperceptible to the naked eye, especially if you’re not paying attention to them.  They consist of small adjustments of the facial muscles, constriction or dilation of the pupils, movements of the limbs and extremities, body posture, tone of voice, and breathing patterns to name a few.  Most of these signals are involuntary, and usually, the person transmitting them doesn’t know that they are doing it.  In addition, the person who is receiving these signals may know something is being communicated but is seldom able to identify the source of these signals.  To make matters worse, the receiver usually doesn’t have enough information to interpret these signals accurately.  Thus, you get a dialogue that looks something like this:

Mom: “Jeffry, I see that you got a C on your geometry test.  Are you having trouble understanding the material?”

Jeffry: “No, Mom, I just had a bad day when I took the test.  I’m doing fine in the class.”

Mom: “No need to get defensive, Jeffry, I’m just concerned about how you’re doing in school.”

Jeffry: “Well, you don’t need to jump all over me about it Mom.  It’s not like I’m a bad student.”

Mom: “I’m not ‘jumping all over you.’  I just asked a question.  I don’t appreciate the tone you’re taking with me.”

Jeffry: “I don’t have a ‘tone.’  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You’re getting all ballistic over a stupid test!”

The next thing you know, both Mom and Jeffry find themselves locked in a battle over who’s attacking who and which of them is being overly sensitive.  Both of them find themselves frustrated by the conversation.  It’s a common scenario that can sometimes lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and disrupted attachment between family members.  What Mom and Jeffry don’t notice is the role each of their respective micro-expressions is playing in the unfolding drama.  There is a great deal more to this conversation than just the words they are using and the content they are conveying. 

How many times have you had a family member say to you, “What was that look about?” or “What’s the matter?  I can tell something’s bothering you,” and you have no idea what they are talking about?  Often, these micro-expressions are communicating emotional states that you may not be aware of in the moment.  Consequently, a whole assortment of miscommunication happens in a short amount of time. If left unexamined and unaddressed, these miscues can lead to some disruptive outcomes for families.

Workshops at Rio Retreat Center

The Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows offers customized intensive workshops for families that are struggling to communicate effectively as well as numerous other relational problems.  If you would like to know more about our Family Matters Workshop or any of our other workshops, contact our intake department at 1-800-244-4949 for more information or visit Rio Retreat Center.

How The Meadows Can Help

Here at The Meadows, we prioritize healthy communication between family members.  One aspect of our intensive Family Matters Workshop is fostering clear, direct communication. This includes, but is not limited to, the words that each family member says to one another.  Each individual must also gain a better awareness of their own emotional states and micro-expressions, as well as those of their loved ones. This is an essential component of healthy communication.  

Written by: John Parker, MS, LMFT, SATP, CSAT, Therapist at Rio Retreat Center