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Therapist Nonverbal Behavior
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you know, nonverbal communication takes place between therapist and client the
first time you meet...each starts developing ideas about the kind of person with
whom each are dealing.
Previously, I described the use of a calm body language as a way of reinforcing a boundary with an out-of-control client. Let's
look at nonverbal communication, contradictory messages, and the resulting effect
on boundaries. As you know, nonverbal communication takes place universally when
two individuals meet, size each other up, and develop ideas about the kind of
person with whom they are dealing, whether the other is hostile or friendly, weak
or strong, concerned or indifferent.
♦ How to Avoid 2 Types of Contradictory Nonverbal Messages
nonverbal communication never ceases, two types of contradictory messages can
-- 1. One related to present circumstances and
-- 2. Another related to your past issues.
You may say verbally, "I am glad that worked out for you," while at
the same time you may convey nonverbally, "I'm tired and feeling the effects
of my allergy medication, it's late on a Friday afternoon, and I'll be glad to
see my last appointment."
find if I am giving off a mixed message I might partially self-disclose, but still
maintain an ethical boundary by saying, "My allergies have been really bothering
me today, so excuse me if my eyes look a little glazed over." Acknowledging
a reality of which the client may be aware, sets up a situation in which a limitation
you have as a person is stated.
Vent to a Fellow Therapist
I am aware of these feelings that may project contradictory non-verbal messages
and recognize their impact on the client, I attempt to deal with my own feelings
in constructive ways. To avoid a problem, I may vent my feelings of frustration with a fellow therapist. They can also, in some instances, help me to clarify
my feelings regarding the client, help me to try to understand their source, and
decide whether it is possible to change the situation that provoked them.
summary ask yourself, "Do I need to increase the frequency of my body scans
regarding my non-verbal messages?" Since body language can convey conflicting
feelings to your client, this creates the boundary violation of shifting the focus
away from the client and towards yourself.
♦ Exercise: Body Scan
maintain this ethical boundary, I do a body scan starting with the tilt of my
head, to my facial expression, eye contact, to my shoulders being raised, my posture,
arms and hands, and finally leg and feet movement. By doing my body scan in
this order from top to bottom, so to speak, it has become a regular habit that
takes little mental distraction and can be done in a few seconds.
do you vent your feelings of frustration? Think of a client towards which you
have conflicting feelings. What feelings do you need to acknowledge? What is their
- Stone, M. (1999). Boundary Violations between Therapist and Patient. Psychiatric Annals, 670(7).
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Dowell, N. M., & Berman, J. S. (2013). Therapist nonverbal behavior and perceptions of empathy, alliance, and treatment credibility. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(2), 158–165.
Heide, F. J. (2013). “Easy to sense but hard to define”: Charismatic nonverbal communication and the psychotherapist. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(3), 305–319.
Knapp, S., Gottlieb, M. C., & Handelsman, M. M. (2017). Self-awareness questions for effective psychotherapists: Helping good psychotherapists become even better. Practice Innovations, 2(4), 163–172.
What is one method to develop awareness of your nonverbal communication?
To select and enter your answer go to .