Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Look Into My Eyes - The Art of Non-Verbal Communication

Giving Someone the Look

     I remember years ago as a newbie teacher being given the advice "Don't smile until Christmas!" This was partly a crowd control technique and partly truth. A steely eyed primary teacher can control a class better. On the other hand, if you enter a new class in September all smiley and happy then it's unlikely you'll have much to smile about until about Easter!

     One of the best tricks I ever learnt was to spot an unfolding drama somewhere in the class, turn my back on the class, wait a few moments and whilst writing on the whiteboard to exclaim "That's quite enough of that Johnny! Didn't you know I have eyes in the back of my head?" Suitable gasps of amazement would issue forth from the stunned students and behaviour would improve dramatically for a while.

     This was all well and good while teaching a class of eight or nine year olds in mainstream education. These days I interact with classes of non-verbal students. I'm not betraying any confidences when I tell you that I work in a special school where the students can be aged 4 to 18 years but operate at an intellectual level of no more that 30 months. You learn to communicate on a different level pretty quickly.

     More recently I've come to realize that so much of our communication takes place with sights, sounds and particularly our eyes. Here I take a look at how this translates into human terms and crosses species boundaries. It manifests as a form of Universal energy that we all instinctively understand.

Not All Roads Lead to Rome

     The curriculum has about 12 subjects that have to be delivered in creative and meaningful ways. My specialist area is music, for which I'm trained to Masters level in a diverse range of techniques and methodologies. Luckily for me, music is one area where the response is almost immediate and the reaction explicit in ways that are rarely observed in other curriculum areas.

     The far reaching effect of music is even more widespread than you may think. I can remember playing music in pubs in Germany when I was gigging there. Almost without fail the same songs would be the ones that triggered a wave of euphoria and got people up dancing.


     The emotional response to music really is that powerful. Certain rhythms, beats and sounds create an impulse in us that compels us to get up and move.

It's Natural

     This impulse goes far deeper than we realize. As I play songs to the students in the school where I work I find the same kind of thing happening. Certain songs will almost always create a good response. Some songs will consistently have almost disastrous results. I learn not to repeat those songs. I don't know whether it's the songs themselves, the effect of the instruments and rhythms or the meaning each individual student attaches to them, but the same songs create the same responses in the students each time I play them.

     The students can't tell me this. They express their emotions in different ways. Most of the time it's because of a total physical response that we know something is liked or disliked. They may stand up and jump around or fling their arms around. Some will clap and some will move closer to the source of the sounds. If a song is disliked then it's quite possible that I'll get something thrown at me. As one special needs specialist once told me any kind of "behaviour" is a form of communication. That's very true. When there's no clapping or hand waving then I have to look for other clues. This is usually in the eyes. There can be a twinkle in the eye that is mostly absent. What can be even more significant and moving is when a student gives me direct eye contact. This is a rare thing to achieve in the environment where I work.

Connecting Naturally

     Direct eye contact can be a threatening thing. We can tell so much by looking into another person's eyes. It also causes us to feel under scrutiny as well as learning about another person. Holding eye contact can be hard. If you can manage it, however, it is a truly bonding experience.

     Walking through the countryside in West Cork I come across a whole range of animals. What amazes me is that this form of communication is even effective in this situation. The most moving experience can be to stare into the eyes of an old horse.


     When I take the time to do this I experience a really special form of connection. There's a level of trust involved that transcends the usual transaction of attention for food. Instead of the playful distrust of a young horse, the older horses tend to stare at me knowingly with such majesty and wisdom. To stand in silence and share this moment has a meaning that I can't put into words. I don't speak the same language as the horses, after all. The language is a fundamental energy that connects all living entities.

Thinking the Same Language

     What I do understand is that whatever is passing between the animal and myself is a form of mutual trust. This is clear in the way the animal will stand close to me, breathing gently.  Instinctively there is something in my eyes that shows him I'm no danger. In return I can sense rather than see the look of trust in his eyes and his body language confirms this.

     This level of non-verbal communication is evident in every day life at every level. We know what's going on around us instinctively. We can almost pre-empt danger with this sixth sense. How often do you hear people saying "He looked funny!" or "You could see it in his eyes!"?

     To be able to see it in the eyes is a gift we shouldn't avoid. Eye contact is intimate but it's also very valuable. In my work it has turned out to be one of the most useful tools for informing planning and helping me gain the trust of my students.

     The next time you meet a trusted friend see if you can experiment with eye contact. You may learn a few new things about your relationship that you never knew.