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Section 6
Nonverbal Behavior in Gestalt Therapy

Question 6 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed three changes counselors and clients can make to their sentences to enhance self-awareness.  These three changes were, changing passive voice to active voice, changing questions to statements, and asking "how" and "what" instead of "why".

In this section, we will discuss four ways in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behavior during Gestalt therapy. These four ways of responding are: indicating how the client's nonverbal behavior is congruent with what is being said; responding to discrepancies between verbal and nonverbal behavior; pointing out nonverbal behavior when the client is not speaking; and distracting or interrupting the client. These were touched on briefly in section one.

Four Responses to Nonverbal Behavior

♦ Response #1 - Congruency to What is Said
I find that the first way in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behaviors is to point out to the client when his or her nonverbal behavior is congruent to what he or she is saying.  As you recall, on Section 3 I helped Suzanne increase her awareness of her feeling of pride at her accomplishments at school by employing the Exaggeration technique.  Another method for increasing Suzanne's awareness of her feelings would be to state, "Suzanne, I notice that as you tell me about your good grade, you are smiling." 

This also allows Suzanne to be aware of a match between her verbal and nonverbal. Once a client has experienced a match between verbal and nonverbal behavior, he or she can develop an understanding of how there can be a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal behavior. I often find that increasing a client's awareness of a match between verbal and nonverbal behavior is an appropriate way to introduce a discussion of the meanings and significance of nonverbal behavior in general. Would you agree?

♦ Response #2 - Discrepancies between Verbal and Nonverbal Behaviors
A second way in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behaviors is to address a discrepancy between the client's verbal and nonverbal behaviors.  Jane, 18, entered therapy following a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend.  In an early session, Jane expressed excitement over an upcoming dance.  Jane stated, "It should be fun, but there's only one problem. I've heard my ex-boyfriend, Tim, can't get a date.  He's asked, like, every girl at school, and they already have dates, or they just don't want to go with him." 

As Jane expressed concern for her ex-boyfriend, I noted that her jaw was tightly clenched.  I stated, "Jane, I hear what you are saying about your concern for Tim, but at the same time I see that you are clamping your jaw.  Is there something else about this situation?"  Jane stated, "Well… look, Tim just dumped me for no reason at all!  I got mad, and I told him that if he just dumped me like that, I'd make sure no girls would want to go out with him. And it looks like it is working!" 

Clearly, Jane's clenched jaw reflected her determination to follow through with her plan to sabotage Tim socially.  By pointing out the discrepancy between her verbal and nonverbal behavior, I helped Jane open a discussion regarding her feelings of hurt and resentment towards Tim.

Later in the session, I explained to Jane that increasing her awareness of her nonverbal behaviors could be a powerful way of knowing herself.  I stated, "Sometimes, people can confuse themselves by trying to say or believe words that are the opposite of their experience and feelings.  If you increase your awareness of your nonverbal behavior, you can recognize messages that you had not been letting through." 

To help Jane increase her awareness of her nonverbal behavior, I asked her to try the Exaggerated Gestures technique.  Since Jane's most noticeable discrepant nonverbal behavior centered in her jaw, I focused the Exaggerated Gestures technique on her mouth and jaw. 

♦ Technique: Exaggerated Gestures
I asked Jane to focus her awareness on her mouth and jaw, and stated, "I am going to walk you through a series of movements.  As I lead you through these gestures, notice how each feels.  Where do you feel tension?  What movements make you feel relaxed?  How does each motion change how you are feeling?" 

Because Jane was uncomfortable making these exaggerated mouth movements in front of me, she sat in a chair facing away from me for the exercise. 
-- I stated, "You lick your lips…
-- You smile slightly…
-- You grit your teeth…
-- Your mouth is dry…
-- Your mouth drops open suddenly…
-- You bite your lips…
-- You snarl…
-- You jut your jaw forward…
-- You grin broadly…
-- You clamp your jaw shut…
-- You spit…
-- You are kissing…
-- You stick out your tongue…
-- You move your tongue rapidly…
-- Your lower lip is quivering…
-- Your lips are drawn tight…"

Would your Jane benefit from trying an Exaggerated Gestures technique focused on the area where he or she most clearly displays discrepant nonverbal behavior?

♦ Repsonse #3 - Responding to Nonverbal Behavior
In addition to indicating how the client's nonverbal behavior is congruent with what is being said, and responding to discrepancies, a third way in which I respond to a client's nonverbal behavior is using the Gestalt technique of responding to nonverbal behavior when the client is not speaking.  As you have experienced, sullenness, boredom, withdrawal, and fear are often expressed nonverbally during a session. 

By responding this behavior, a therapist can increase a client's awareness of the fact that they are doing 'something' rather than 'nothing' during their silences.  This approach is also useful when a client has reached a point in which he or she cannot find words to describe what he or she is experiencing.  By encouraging the client to follow through on his or her nonverbal behaviors, I find I  can help the client become more aware of what he or she is experiencing.  This increased awareness of the experience can help the client connect words to what were previously almost inaccessible feelings.

♦ Response #4 - Interrupting the Client
A fourth way in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behavior is distracting or interrupting the client. Remember Larry from Section 4?  When I asked him to explain how his heart condition lead to his forced early retirement, I noticed that Larry seemed to be settling into a pattern of "relating his case" in a manner he had likely used to explain his condition on numerous other occasions.  I decided to interrupt Larry to break the flow of his routine and increase his awareness of his present behavior.

I stated, "Larry, as you tell me about your heart condition, I notice that your shoulders are slumped."  I felt that interrupting Larry in this way communicated the idea that I was trying to understand him totally, rather than just attending to what he was saying.

Of course, interrupting or distracting a client can be counterproductive. Sometimes, interruptions can break a client away from his or her flow of feelings. Interrupting this flow of feelings may result in the client being unwilling or unable to return to the issues being discussed before the interruption. I find that experience, knowledge of the client, and intuition all factor heavily in deciding whether or not to respond to a nonverbal behavior with distraction or interruption.  Would you agree?

In this section, we have discussed four ways in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behavior during Gestalt therapy.  These four ways of responding are: indicating how the client's nonverbal behavior is congruent with what is being said; responding to discrepancies between verbal and nonverbal behavior; pointing out nonverbal behavior when the client is not speaking; and distracting or interrupting the client.

In the next section, we will discuss four methods of implementing Identification and Projection in Gestalt therapy.  These four methods are: identifying with an object, identifying with a person, identifying with a part of the self, and identifying with a nonverbal behavior.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Furley, P., Kohlhaas, S., Englert, C., Nieuwenhuys, A., & Bertrams, A. (2019). The expression of ego depletion: Thin slices of nonverbal behavior as cues to momentary self-control capacity. Social Psychology, 50(5-6), 305–321.

Ramseyer, F., & Tschacher, W. (2011). Nonverbal synchrony in psychotherapy: Coordinated body movement reflects relationship quality and outcome. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(3), 284–295.

Rodomonti, M., Fedeli, F., De Luca, E., Gazzillo, F., & Bush, M. (2019). The adaptive function of fantasy: A proposal from the perspective of control-mastery theory. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication.

Tønnesvang, J., Sommer, U., Hammink, J., & Sonne, M. (2010). Gestalt therapy and cognitive therapy—Contrasts or complementarities? Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(4), 586–602. 

Twohig, M. P., Ong, C. W., Krafft, J., Barney, J. L., & Levin, M. E. (2019). Starting off on the right foot in acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy, 56(1), 16–20. 

QUESTION 6
What are four Gestalt techniques in which a therapist can respond to a client's nonverbal behavior during a session? To select and enter your answer go to Test.


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