The Talking Stick Blog

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The Bigger Picture: Unconscious Communication

Unconscious Communication

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I’ve been wondering about the unconscious ways we adults communicate with young people and how to bring awareness to them. For example, tone of voice reflects what a person is thinking and feeling to varying degrees (whether intentional or not). One may use a sweet “patient” tone and words but the throbbing vein in the temple gives more information than our words ever could.

Standing over young people is something many of us do every day. This form of body language expresses dominance and a lack of empathy. I know, we are not thinking, “I really want to dominate this person right now” (or are we?), but the act of standing over instead of sitting or squatting at eye level is inherently condescending. Try an exercise where one adult is on their knees having a conversation with another adult standing up. Or even better a group of people standing up and having a conversation about you in the third person. It’s something we as adults would never expect or tolerate.

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Our tones have multiple implications that again, are not necessary conscious. For example, when an adult uses an impatient tone when showing a young person how to do something new. The tone that says, “Isn’t this obvious?” or “Shouldn’t you know this by now?” When we truly meet people where they are at, without any assumptions about where we think they should be, our tone is matter-of-fact, almost neutral.

When we face a young person proposing an idea with a look of consternation, we are expressing the feelings that we are really dubious about the idea and that they may be making an illegitimate request. If instead we focus on feeling genuinely open to innovative ideas that may make connections that we ourselves were not making, that comes across in our faces. In turn, the person with the idea feels that paths are open for further development, perhaps in the direction of making their idea a reality.

The important thing is that these expressions reflect thoughts and feelings that we are actually having so we need to address them on that level, to bring the sub-conscious to the conscious mind. We can then reflect on the effect they have on the people around us as well as wonder about why our thinking is so limited. If someone comes to me and says, “I want to build a rocket ship,” and I think, “that’s impossible!” instead of “Oooo, I wonder what this person is thinking of,” those thoughts will express themselves in the face, body and tone of my response. Even if I say, “Tell me more about that”, if I am judging negatively, that comes across.

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Our body language, tone and facial expressions can have an effect on self-esteem and image of ones self. If day after day, young people are faced with physical cues that say “no”, they begin to believe that their ideas are not worth pursuing. Or that their wants or needs are not worth getting met. If instead, they were met with the genuine expressions of openness, empathy and understanding, they would feel better about themselves and their place in the world.