Communication. It’s a skill few of us are very good at. The written or spoken word is often far too simplistic to help us say what we really mean. And yet, effective communication lies at the heart of all relationships. The conversations we have with each other, whether face-to-face, online, or by text message are an integral part of our daily lives and, indeed, what most of us take for granted. For persons living with complex disabilities, including those with communication challenges, carrying on a conversation is a monumental task. And getting their messages heard is next to impossible.
Interestingly, though, the words we use account for only a small percentage – something like 7% – of the message we convey. How we say those words represents close to 40% of the message. But more than half (55%) of our message to others is conveyed through non-verbals like facial expressions and body language. For persons who are unable to speak, like my son, Ben, this can often be turned into an advantage.
Mastering the non-verbals
For the first 20 years of his life, Ben had no formal way of communicating. This wasn’t because he didn’t have the skills to do so; rather, it was because no one knew how to teach him. Sadly, there were even those who thought he could never be taught so they didn’t even try. Despite all this, Ben relied on the 55% factor and used every non-verbal at his disposal. In turn, we learned to be masters of those cues and signs: eye expressions, different vowel-like sounds, the colour of his complexion, the degree of stiffness of his body and limbs, how he held his head (or didn’t want to hold his head up), and, of course, his smiles.
Instead of sound waves reaching our ears in the form of words and speech, and our brains translating that collection of sounds into some meaning that we could respond to, there was another sensory medium at play – the “55% medium”. Ben would combine some or all of those non-verbals that could be translated into a message he wanted to convey.
A great example of this happened last month. Without warning, Ben made an unusual gasping sound that shook both him and me from a sound sleep. When I approached his bedside, he was lying fully awake which was very unusual for him given it was not quite 5AM. He glanced at me but didn’t really connect. His body had become elongated and he stretched his neck and head as far as it could go. No words were spoken but this combination of body position, lack of eye contact, and gasping sounds sent a message that he was in a lot of discomfort, and even a bit afraid.
After repositioning him, I returned to bed and prayed to our Blessed Virgin Mary that he would settle. I think you would agree that looking to our mothers in times of distress is something most of us do. Looking to the Holy Mother of God for comfort was something I needed. The minutes passed ever so slowly marked by long periods of silence from Ben. There were no uninhibited yawns (his trademark), no grinding of teeth, no signs that he was settling back to sleep. No words came from his lips but the message he was sending was loud and it was clear. Things were not going in a good direction and Ben was doing all he could to tell me so.
The next few days were marred by multiple seizures, a general lack of energy, a poor appetite and a heaviness of spirit. Again, no words but very clear communication.
A complete turnaround
Then, without warning, a smile. And a sparkle in his eyes. Those feelings of distress that had consumed him without warning had disappeared in a similar fashion. The power of that smile and complementary non-verbals instantly changed my mood and reset the whole conversation for the rest of the day.
Later, Ben would use his talker to tell me “I’m fine” but those were just words. The feelings, the spirit, the reading of his eyes could not be conveyed in those two words. But his body language and the happiness in his face could.
That “55%-medium” does not speak to us in the typical sense but if you’re patient and willing to listen to it, you will hear so much more than words.
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