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What Can We Learn From Non-Verbal Communication? 

Published On: 1 July 2024

After our popular webinar about non-verbal communication, I’m Communicating – are You Listening?, we wanted to consider how we can recognise and respond effectively to early signs of distress, enabling us to take action and offer the best supports to the individuals in our care.

Communication can take many forms: we use spoken language to engage in conversations, ask and answer questions, and verbally articulate our innermost wants and needs. However, we can often communicate just as effectively, if not more so, through our non-verbal body language.

Often, our stance, posture, facial expression, and other unique mannerisms paint a very clear picture of how we are feeling, and what we are trying to communicate. For us as professionals, understanding this is central to our everyday practice, enabling us to tune into individuals’ emotions, anticipate where support might be needed, and take appropriate steps to reduce risk for all.

In short, understanding non-verbal communication helps us to spot early signs of dysregulation, and decide on the best support for individuals in our care.

One behaviour, many meanings

We are all ‘behaving’ all of the time, and behaviours can have different meanings depending on the context, and the individual involved. For example, we cannot always assume that when someone screams, they are feeling dysregulated. They might be playing a game; perhaps they are happy or excited about something; or maybe they are not trying to communicate anything in particular. In these instances, the ‘behaviour’ may not require any attention or intervention from us at all.

However, for that person at another time, or for a different individual, the same behaviour – screaming – may be a sign of dysregulation; it could be an outward indication of inner distress; it might be an attempt to gain connection, or to self-soothe.

To choose the best response, we need to be able to identify and understand individuals’ baseline behaviours to recognise the early signs of dysregulation.

What are baseline behaviours?

Baseline behaviours are those that are typical for that individual when they are feeling calm, safe, and comfortable. They give us a benchmark for comparison and allow us to identify behaviours that may need our support.

By recognising their baseline, we can often respond to an individual when we observe something different, before they are in crisis.

Spotting the early signs of distress

The most effective way to spot early signs of distress is by getting to know a person, and their personal habits, preferences, and mannerisms. This ongoing process, where we invest time in building trust and forging strong relationships, enables us to become familiar with individuals’ tendencies, and recognise what is typical for them.

Consequently, we are more able to pick up on small, subtle changes in body language that may indicate a shift in a person’s state: their facial expressions; their breathing pattern; or changes to skin tone, for example.

Through curious observation, we may also notice a change in the regularity or intensity of certain behaviours, which might give us cause for concern. Little things can sometimes escalate into bigger things: pulling clothing can become scratching skin; prodding can become pinching, then punching; tapping can become whole-body fidgeting, then running.

Taking a wider, holistic view of behaviour

Stepping back and taking a broader perspective can also give us vital information about an individual’s inner state:

  • Have they started to change how they dress?
  • Have their eating habits changed?
  • Are they listening to different music?
  • Is there an uptick in sensory-seeking behaviour, such as chewing their clothing?

By playing detective, and piecing together all of the incremental clues, we stand a better chance of spotting early signs of dysregulation, enabling us to offer support where needed, and prevent situations from escalating.

Is ‘intervention’ always the right course of action?

Of course, there is no guarantee that intervening early can always reduce dysregulation, and, in some instances, we may choose not to. Why? Because although witnessing someone in distress, or even in crisis, can be upsetting for everyone, it is sometimes a way for individuals to experience and move through very difficult emotions, with us poised and ready to support them if necessary. In other words, to ‘struggle safely’.

Within a healthy climate of ‘trial and learn’, rather than ‘trial and error’, we can all learn how to navigate crises together, and reflect on what we might do differently in future.

It’s also worth reflecting on what we mean by ‘intervention’, and what this might look like in practice. When we notice that someone’s body language is communicating early signs of dysregulation, something as simple as intentional attentiveness is often enough – for now. In other words, we stay nearby, watch closely, and offer reassurance through our own body language and words. During this time, some individuals may be able to re-regulate themselves, but if not, we can continue to dynamically risk assess, and adapt our response accordingly.

This can be a tricky balancing act for us as practitioners, because outwardly, it can look as though we are doing nothing; that we are allowing situations to escalate, when in fact, we are deliberately watching and waiting. Often, we feel external pressure to take action. It is, therefore, important that whole staff teams are aware that this approach of ‘doing nothing’ can be a positive action, that then leads to another positive action.

Involving individuals in the process

Sometimes, individuals may not be aware of their own body language and may not understand how their behaviour is unsafe for themselves or others. Involving them in our response can be enormously insightful, for both them and us. We can use the phrase, “I can see…” to help us explain to an individual what we’re noticing and offer support if it’s required.

Using professional curiosity and a non-judgemental tone, we can bring individuals’ attention to their own non-verbal communication, offering them the opportunity to decide on next steps themselves, or with our support. We can also follow the same process with behaviour we want to encourage by affirming it and helping individuals to make sense of it.

Puzzle-solving, not problem-solving

When it comes to interpreting non-verbal communication and using it to decide the best course of action, we need to keep an individual’s best interests front and centre when we see early signs of dysregulation. Our response needs to be determined by their needs.

We can weigh up the risks and benefits of doing something, versus doing nothing – for now – and maintain close observation as part of a robust dynamic risk assessment process. Making the ‘right call’ is not always black and white as there may be many different choices available, and as situations develop, we may need to change our plans to respond to a changing need.

However, by investing in relationships, tuning into individuals’ unique body language, and recognising early signs of dysregulation, we can make informed decisions that are driven by an individual’s best interests and centred around the supports they need.





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