The appropriate use of head nods, especially at the end of sentences, can make clients feel helpers are listening and following what they are saying. Indeed, verbal messages are sometimes unnecessary because helpers communicate through head nods that they are “with” clients and that clients should continue talking. Too few head nods can make clients feel anxious because they might think that helpers are not paying attention; too many can be distracting.
BODY POSTURE An often-recommended body posture is for helpers to lean toward clients and maintain an open body posture with the arms and legs uncrossed (e.g., Egan, 1994). This leaning, open body posture often effectively conveys that the helper is paying attention, although helpers can appear rigid if they stay in this position too long. Also, if the open, leaning position is uncomfortable, it can be hard for helpers to attend to clients.
BODILY MOVEMENTS Bodily movements provide information one often cannot obtain from either verbal content or facial expression. As Freud (1905/1953a) eloquently stated, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips, betrayal oozes out of him at every pore” (p. 94). Van den Stock, Righart, and de Gelder (2007) found that body expressions were particularly important in addition to those of the face and voice in helping responders recognize emotions. Similarly, Beattie and Shovelton (2005) suggested that spontaneous hand gestures enabled people to get their messages across more clearly.
Ekman and Friesen (1969) noted that leg and foot movements are the most likely sources of nonverbal leakage because they are less subject to conscious awareness and voluntary inhibition. The hands and face are the next best sources of clues for nonverbal leakage. Hence, if a helper finds him- or herself repeatedly tapping his or her foot, the helper might think about what he or she is feeling.
Gestures often communicate meaning, especially when they are used in conjunction with verbal activity. According to McGough (1975), the following are some possible meanings (again, remember that these are just possible meanings):
Steepling of fingers might suggest that a person feels confident, smug, or proud. Touching or rubbing the nose tends to be a negative reaction. Hand to mouth often occurs when a person has blurted out something that should not have been said. Finger wagging or pointing implies lecturing or laying blame. Tugging at the collar suggests that the person feels cornered. Pinching the bridge of the nose implies that the person is deep in thought. Locked arms or crossed legs can be a defensive or critical position.
A clenched fist is sometimes a defensive or hostile gesture. Hand over the eyes can be a gesture of avoidance. Sitting back in chair with hands behind the head may communicate confidence or superiority.
SPACE The term proxemics refers to how people use space in interactions. E. T. Hall (1968) described four distance zones for middle-class Americans: intimate (0–18 inches), personal (1.5–4 feet), social (4–12 feet), and public (12 feet or more). If rules for prescribed distances are not followed, people can feel uncomfortable, although they are not usually aware of what is making them uneasy. Hall noted that once these patterns for space are learned, they are maintained largely outside of conscious awareness. Typically, the personal to social distance is considered appropriate for seating arrangements in helping relationships, although individuals vary in the amount of distance that feels comfortable for them. Some helpers place chairs close together, whereas others, when they have control over the arrangements, place the chairs far apart. Some helpers place a number of chairs in their offices and allow clients to choose where they sit; where the client sits then provides information that the helper can later use in speculating about the client’s needs (e.g., to be close or to be distant).
Space is used in different ways in different cultures (E. T. Hall, 1963). American and British people generally prefer to be relatively distant from other people and rarely touch. In contrast, Hispanic and Middle Eastern people generally prefer less distance. For example, Arabs and Israelis often stand close, touch, talk loudly, and stare intently. In their review of the literature in work environments, Ayoko and Hartel (2003) found consistent evidence that space violations triggered conflict for people from different cultural backgrounds. In addition, Norman (1982) noted that space is a specialized elaboration of culture. He claimed that space reflects status, power, and expressions of personality. For example, a client would probably very differently to a helper sitting behind a desk than to a helper sitting without a barrier in between, given that desks can communicate power.
Helpers also need to take cultural considerations into account rather than just reacting unconsciously to someone who uses different proxemic patterns. However, helpers need to be avoid stereotyping given the vast range of differences within cultures. For example, a helper should not assume all Latino/Latina clients want to be hugged at the beginning and end of each session just because Latino people often hug when greeting and leaving. Differences exist within cultures, and acculturation to the dominant culture may influence clients’ comfort with physical closeness.