499. Besides Words

I used to get intimidated by people who seemed to have what they called “silent understandings” with people. I thought that my own use of words was kind of obsessive, and that some day, if and when I really got my act together, I’d be able to have silent understandings with people, too. So far, that hasn’t happened as much as I’d hoped, and I don’t think it’s going to. But now I think that’s okay. I like the understandings words can build, and though I still try to respect the non-verbal communication some people rely on more heavily than I do, and still work on getting more able to use it myself, I’m no longer intimidated by it.
People do say important things with their faces, hands, and bodies. They also say words that aren’t quite what they mean, and sometimes people seem to be reading each other’s minds. It’s useful to be able to see and hear messages that words aren’t explicitly delivering; some people don’t use words as well as they communicate non-verbally, and they may still have important things to say. If the ability to communicate belonged only to people who were good with words, there wouldn’t be as much communication as there is.
So it does make sense to look and listen for the words not spoken. Since this is a book about ways of relating with children, I’ll try to focus on that, but non- verbal communication is an issue throughout life (e.g., “If you really cared about me, I wouldn’t have to ask.”)
We parents and teachers have to be on the lookout all the time for signals from children, who haven’t figured out how to say all they’re thinking and feeling. True, some of their feelings and thoughts do come out in words – even some that don’t come out as freely when children get older. But children who don’t know how to say what’s on their minds, don’t know when to say it, or don’t quite know what’s on their minds still have important things to say, and it sometimes helps to be able to read non-verbal signals.
Let’s say a child says, “Oh, I get it!” That may mean just what it says – that the child has reached a new level of understanding. But if we listen to the child’s tone of voice, and/or watch the child’s face and body language, we may discover that the new understanding may not be as firm as the child is telling us it is – may not even be there at all. That’s when we have to read the signs and think quickly. We try not to directly contradict the child (“No, you DON’T get it!”), but we probe a little; we try to find out what’s going on. And sometimes words don’t work as well as other ways of self-expression.
A lot of teaching is intensely verbal. We want children to use words more, and rely less on the rest of their repertoire. When you’re angry and you know it,
it’s often not so effective to stamp your feet. Try telling us what you’re angry about. We’ll still look and listen for stamping feet, but words often work better.

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