What is it?
Non-verbal communication (NVC) involves using the face or body, consciously or otherwise, to convey meaning. It consists of a number of elements, which include:
- eye contact and eye movement
- gaze (direction and intensity)
- facial expressions
- gestures with the hands
- body posture and orientation (for example, sitting up straight, or facing a person you are speaking to)
- use of the voice (tone, pitch, volume, intonation, speed)
- vocalization (‘ums and ahs’, etc)
- the way you dress and general bodily adornment
Why is it important?
NVC often carries as much information as verbal communication, and can have a profound effect on how we see, and are seen by, others. The ability to ‘read’ NVC tends to last longer than the ability to understand speech, perhaps because it precedes it in human development.
Impairment of hearing in older people living with dementia (a common problem that carers sometimes make too little effort to relieve or accommodate) can put an even greater premium on effective use of NVC.
Decoding facial expressions carries more importance for people living with dementia. Even people who have lost the ability to speak or to apparently understand speech can respond to facial expressions. Similarly, gesture can serve as a useful reinforcement to speech, and tone of voice can be especially reassuring (or threatening).
- Be aware that gentle touch is very helpful in reassuring people and reinforcing meaning.
- You should make eye contact whenever possible. It can be reassuring to people who are having trouble understanding speech or intention.
- Face-to-face, non-threatening positions are good for promoting understanding.
- You should also sit close to people living with dementia, and sit at the same level (don’t ‘loom’).
- Try to avoid distracting hand movements when speaking.
- Remember that different gestures may have different meanings to people from different socio-cultural backgrounds, so try to use those which you know are meaningful and appropriate.
- Be consistent in your body language – use similar gestures to mean similar things.
- Be aware of any possible cultural constraints – how appropriate is touch, and is gender an issue, for example?