What Are You Nonverbally Communicating?

I recently spent the weekend visiting my family and while I was watching my nephew play outside, I was also responding to an email.  In that moment, all excited about the the bee in the backyard, he noticed that I wasn’t paying attention; looking up to me with big blue eyes, he innocently asked, “Auntie, are you texting?”  Later that day I was thinking, what are we really communicating to others when we are consumed with our phones?  For most of us, our phone is usually within an arm’s reach.  We stop conversations to read text messages, ignore stories to scroll through Facebook, or zone out to a game while we’re at dinner with friends or family.  While you may find this behavior acceptable, and the norm, have you considered what you’re really communicating to others?


Something else is more important

In that moment when my nephew was pointing to the bee, I was subconsciously telling him that something else was much more important than spending time with him.  While it’s not always possible to put your phone away – say you’re on call, working from home, or there’s an emergency – it is possible to peel yourself away to acknowledge others around you.  I often suggest to clients, if possible, they leave their phone tucked away.  The last thing you want to communicate to your friend, child, or partner is that they don’t matter. 

You Do Not Matter

When you pick up your phone in the middle of a conversation or quickly utter an “mmm hmmm” while your eyes are directed at that little screen, you are communicating a very clear, nonverbal message.  We may not always be interested in our partner’s hobbies or find it difficult to play with trucks or dolls for the third time in a day, and that is okay.  However, a little validation goes a long way.  When you are preoccupied with your phone, you are telling others they do not matter as much, and they are, in some way, undeserving of your time and attention.  If you’re having a conversation, try tucking your phone away, pile them all in the middle of the table, or don’t bring them at all.  Showing you’re interest in the other person communicates that they matter.

I’m Not Interested in You

When I see a pair or a group of people out together and they are all on their phones, it makes me wonder if they are even interested in spending time with one another.  If you are texting, tweeting, or playing a game, you are basically communicating that you’re not interested in the conversation and what you’re perusing is much more compelling.  Consider how you feel when others treat you in this fashion.  Chances are your child or partner is experiencing similar feelings.

It’s Okay to Ignore Me

We teach others how to treat us.  When you pick up your phone in the middle of a conversation and ignore others, you’re teaching them that behavior is an acceptable way to treat you.  It would be of benefit to consider what your phone habits are teaching others.  Modeling a little phone etiquette could dramatically change your conversations. 
Obviously these won’t hold true for every situation; however, next time you start reaching for your phone, think about what you’re communicating to others.  When we are spending time with friends and family members, they deserve our full attention.  Think about it, when was the last time you were truly present with someone or even yourself?  Putting down your phone and making eye contact and asking questions will communicate a message of interests and caring.  Your child, friend, or partner will never have to question whether or not you like them or are interested in the conversation. 
Lori Dougherty is a Marriage and Family Counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, CO. As a marriage and family counselor, she helps couples navigate the many difficulties that arise in their relationship. She also helps couples rebuild happiness together so they can have the fulfilling relationship with their partner they’ve always wanted.

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