How we communicate matters

This is the first in a one-a-month series of articles about Mental Health Awareness — editor.

There are often times when we need emotional love and support from others. There are also times when we have the chance to offer that priceless support to our loved ones. As a professional counselor, I would like to share some basic tips for supporting others in times of need.

— How we say our words: When we are talking to others, it is important to be aware of our body language. The ways we use our bodies to communicate are called nonverbal behaviors. Nonverbal behaviors actually speak louder than words; oftentimes, it’s not what we say, but how we say it.

Let’s take time right now to do a quick exercise. First, find a comfortable place to sit. Take your arms and cross them across your chest. If it’s comfortable, put your legs into a crossed position or even pull them up to your chest as well. How do you feel? What would someone sitting across from you observe? It is likely that you feel closed off; others might think you are not interested or open to talking to them. Now, uncross your arms and put your feet flat on the floor. Lean forward a bit. Now how do you feel? How would another person in the room feel when talking to you? When you face another person openly, your nonverbals say, “I’m here to listen. I trust you and care about you.”

Another way you can show others you care is by offering eye contact. Especially nowadays when we are almost always connected to our smartphones, it can be hard to give others our full attention. But, if you want to have a genuine conversation with someone else, put down your phone or newspaper and look at the other person. This shows that you are giving them your full attention. Kids really like when they have our full attention, but adults appreciate it too. Notice your eye contact when talking to others for the next few days; are you giving people your full attention? If not, how might that affect your relationships?

Finally, it is possible to change the mood of a conversation just by talking slowly and softly. It is difficult to speak slowly when feeling anxious or angry, but try to catch yourself, take a breath, and slow down as much as you can. Others will be able to hear your words more easily, and they will feel safe to explain their views as well.

The words we say: After we learn how our bodies communicate, we can start to think about the messages we send with our words. When talking to anyone who has a concern (e.g., your child, your child’s teacher, your friend, your partner), it is important to validate what the other person is saying. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it means you understand what they are saying. You can validate someone by saying, “It seems like you are saying that …” or “It sounds like you are upset because … .” This helps others know that you have heard their message and thought about it.

When you respond to others, use “I” statements. For example, “I feel upset when you ignore me, and I would prefer a deeper connection.” or “I feel angry, and I hope we can reach a solution.” This way, others know that you are not trying to blame them as we take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings.

It is also helpful to avoid telling other people what to do. Every person is unique, and they need to make their own decisions. If someone comes to you with a problem or a need, ask them what they would like to do and how you might be able to help.

Finally, it is helpful to validate how hard a person’s situation must be with statements like “Tthat must be so hard,” or “that really isn’t fair.” Oftentimes, there are no easy ways to fix problems, but it feels better if someone else understands and supports us during tough times. If you enjoy this type of information, you might consider getting your master’s degree in counseling at UNC Pembroke. Visit for more information.

Dr. Nicole Stargell is a field placement and testing coordinator and assistant professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Dr. Nicole Stargell is a field placement and testing coordinator and assistant professor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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