The Value of Words in Communication

Many of us have heard that non-verbal cues make up about 90 percent of communication. But how so? You may be thinking, “yah, I know, so what”? So follow this logic for a moment. This means that regardless of how well polished, or unpolished your words to someone might be, the ways that you behave while saying the words make bigger impacts on the listener than the quality of the words themselves.

The reverse is also true. When someone is talking to you, how well you are understanding their words will mean less to the speaker than how you seem to be impacted by the words. You may be asking what is the difference?  So let me explain with this example.

When I began my counseling internship at Olive Branch Counseling Associates in Tinley Park, IL, during my first supervising session, my site supervisor relayed one of her experiences that I may never forget. She indicated that she was doing counseling in a Spanish speaking country and used a translator to communicate with her clients. Then suddenly, the translator became permanently unavailable. I do not remember if the person had died, or otherwise left the organization.  When the clients were informed of the news, and the counselor was expressing her regrets that the therapy sessions had to end because there was no translator, the clients said that they wanted to continue the sessions even if the counselor could not sufficiently understand what they were saying.

I asked my supervisor to explain why clients would still want service under those conditions. She replied that they mainly wanted a space to express themselves to someone who would listen, not judge them, and keep their information confidential. Well, I got the latter; if you do not understand what they are saying, it is difficult to tell other people what they said. Perfect, although that is already an assurance; even when well trained and ethical counselors understand what their clients say, the information is safe with them.

But you may ask, what is the value of speaking to someone who does not understand your words? I guess the answer is in the point made at the beginning of the blog; about 90 percent of what is communicated is done without words. Therefore, the proper eye contact, nodding, empathetic facial expressions, intermittent sounds such as umm, and ah, meant more to the clients than their counselor understanding their words. Sometimes, a person may simply want to release what is on their mind without being judged, advised, chastised, approved, or otherwise directed. That too, is communication.

So here is an exercise, for at least three times in the next week, listen to someone (a child, spouse, friend, colleague, annoying neighbor, seeming enemy), and say nothing in return. Okay, if you must, the only words allowed are, “thanks for sharing.” Then see what you will learn from that episode of communication. It could change their life, or just as importantly, it could change your own life, or your relationship with them.

Written By: Peter K.B. St. Jean

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