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Reading the Room

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Are you an observant person? Do you notice when someone gets their hair cut or something changes in a room? Sometimes our level of awareness increases as we become less self-absorbed. In my practice it is not uncommon for a patient who has been in therapy for a while to suddenly notice a piece of furniture or a picture. Those objects were always present but were unnoticed until now, which often implies that the patient has grown and progressed in their therapy. When we're able to see beyond ourselves and have a broader perspective on life we are able to observe much more. We can easily be consumed with life demands and be oblivious to our surroundings or the people around us. Some of us have tunnel vision and are hyper-focused on our next task, only looking up for a brief moment. This is often frustrating to the people we love who may feel invisible or insignificant in our presence. In some cases there are other impediments to awareness such as distractibility, inattentiveness to social cues, lack of emotional maturity, selfishness, and/or insensitivity to others' needs.

People who are not very good at picking up on social cues might misinterpret or overlook a sigh, eye rolling, postural change, shift in eye contact, or other nonverbal communications. Do they purposefully ignore or inadvertently disregard the messages others are trying to convey? Or are they completely unaware of the meaning behind nonverbal nuances or interactions that carry significance? Regardless of the reason for the missed communication, it can lead to frustration and disconnectedness. Since relationships are dependent upon clear, direct, and effective communication, being aware of nonverbal cues is important to maintaining closeness. Sometimes we're confused when we receive a mixed message where the verbal and nonverbal cues don't match. For instance when someone says a mean comment with a smile. This is the perfect time to ask a clarifying question like, "what did you mean by that?" or "can you clarify for me what you're trying to say?"

Effective communication can be difficult at times and requires our undivided attention. We are best positioned for a healthy conversation when we eliminate distractions like our phone, computer, and TV. It is also helpful to avoid mind reading (assuming you know where the other person is going with the conversation) and to let them finish without interrupting or completing their sentence. We can be more connected when we listen more and talk less. In order to read the room, we have to work on observing others' behaviors and reactions to our conversations and attend to nonverbal communications. We can practice with our partner by engaging in conversation without talking and only interacting nonverbally and attempting to interpret what they are communicating. These are skills that we can all learn, but it takes time and practice. Being attentive and sensitive to others' words and actions can make for greater connection. Reflect and respect leads to connect.

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