How to use body language to improve your social work practice

Most of us are familiar with the theory that 90% of a person’s emotions are expressed through non-verbal means of communication. But did you know that a greater awareness of body language can transform your daily working life? John McLachlan, neuro-linguistic programming trainer and psychotherapist, explains how.

How to use your own body language to communicate better

1. Help service users feel relaxed in your presence

Mirroring the body language of a service user helps create rapport and this can help someone feel more relaxed. McLachlan suggests observing how the service user moves and then reflecting it in your own body language. For example, when you first meet, let the service user sit down first. “Watch how they sit and then sit yourself in a similar way,” says McLachlan. “It doesn’t need to match exactly – if they cross their legs at the knee, you might cross yours at the ankle.”

2. Stay in control when the other person is trying to dominate or intimidate

Here, you want to avoid sending the message that you feel anxious, which signals you are giving up power. Avoid expansive gestures such as waving your arms. McLachlan says the key is keeping your body firm with controlled movements. He warns against leaning forward, especially if the service user is leaning forward: “That’s meeting aggression with aggression. Instead you want to meet aggression with firmness. Don’t let your body stiffen but keep it strong and your movements firm.  If you’re on a sofa, sit up straight.”

He also suggests using hand gestures that indicate strength. “Keep your fingers and thumb together and use a chopping motion to underline what you are saying.  So if you are saying something like ‘let me clear about this’, use a strong, quite sharp tone and underline it with a chopping motion. What your body is saying is:  I know what I am doing and I won’t be messed around by you.”

3. Prevent confrontation from escalating

If interactions become heated, try to keep your body language open. Do not fold your arms, as it gives the impression that you are against the other person.  Likewise, pointing can be seen as highly aggressive and could lead to further conflict. Try not to take what is said in the heat of the moment personally and keep your voice low and calm.

Maintain distance from the angry person; this is good common sense, but it is also less intrusive. “If you are supporting someone, you might sit next to them on the sofa, but if you are in a confrontational situation, it’s not appropriate,” says McLachlan.

What other people’s body language can tell you

1. The service user is lying

If a person is lying, there is often incongruence between what they say and what their body does.  For example, someone tells you they are happy, but their facial expression is tight rather than open and their shoulders are tense. Or someone might tell you they agree with you but, even as they say it, they shake their head. Practise looking out for contradictions. “It could be a very slight movement, almost a rocking motion, and you’ll miss it if you are not watching for it,” says McLachlan. “Stay switched on and tuned in to what their body is telling you rather than looking at notes.”

2. The service user is not listening to you

The tell-tale signs are often in the eyes, says McLachlan. “If someone’s eyes are defocused then they are inside their head, not engaged in the conversation.” Similarly, they may move their legs or turn their bodies to face away from the speaker. 

However, remember that such movements do not guarantee the listener has switched off. The trick is to identify what is normal for that particular person so you can spot any changes. “It might be that someone who is nervous always looks away when someone is speaking – so you should calibrate how they are at the start and note any changes.”

3. What the service user really feels about someone in their life

If a service user’s relationship with someone – e.g. their partner, child or parent – is of concern, take a look at how the two of them interact with one another. “If someone is sitting with their partner, for example, think about how they look with each other,’ says McLachlan. “Is the service user relaxed or is their body stiff and tense? Are the couple looking at each other and, if so, is the eye contact relaxed?  Do they sit as though they are equals or is one towering over the other?”

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