Adam Blatner, M.D.


(Revised August 1, 2002)
As mentioned in Part 1–the overview on nonverbal communications–it is helpful for people to learn about this dimension of human behavior. This paper is Part 2 building on Part 1, and will discuss some ways that can be achieved.

One element is simply learning the information, setting up the categories in the mind, getting oriented to the problem. But much of the learning needs to be through getting the "feel" of it, by "doing" these behaviors, and varying them. Role playing–a derivative of psychodrama–is a natural and especially effective way to learn this skill. For example, you can only teach astronauts about learning to get about in zero gravity by actually simulating the experience in special flights of airplanes, etc. There might be some preliminary briefings, lectures, readings of others' experiences, and that may reduce the sense of disorientation before it happens, but the actual learning happens only in the "doing." Role playing is the simulation method for interpersonal skill learning.

The role playing techniques of enactment, role reversal, doubling, the mirror, replay, and others all offer a variety of experiential "viewpoints" for bringing such subtle body-languages into sharper awareness. It is worthwhile to refer to Part 1 while reading through this paper, which complements Part 1 by showing how gaining this sensitivity and awareness may be practiced. Let's restate again though the major categories of nonverbal communications:

personal space
eye contact
physiologic responses
Learning about this dimension is good for people-helpers, therapists, those who need in the long run to teach people how to learn about this dimension! But in addition, I envision this being taught in high school, college, professional training, management training, etc.-- as part of any curriculum of social and emotional learning!

For psychologists, learning about nonverbal communications goes further in helping therapists understand the many-leveled dynamics of interpersonal functioning. For clients or patients in therapy, they become more empowered, psychologically-minded and self-aware! So I think some component of this kind of learning would be a powerful adjunct to any holistic therapeutic approach.   (Perhaps a weekend workshop for clients in individual or family therapy?)

Some psychotherapists have used videotape playback to promote some insight about the dynamics expressed through nonverbal communications, but that approach  requires technical equipment and the time to set it up, someone to run it, and often a good deal of time spent in reviewing the non-edited tapes. Happily, role playing techniques can often achieve much the same result without these disadvantages or hindrances.

Also, the process of exploring problems in this experiential fashion often evokes a greater degree of group cohesion as people work together to stage and comment on the interactions. There are elements of novelty, playfulness and artistic challenge in enacting scenes, which further builds a greater degree of involvement.

Role Playing Techniques

Often people cannot easily understand the impact of the nonverbal communications involved in a situation unless it is replayed and pointed out. For this, the role playing technique called "the mirror" is often effective. (As I noted before, these techniques are actually psychodrama techniques, which I've written about in my books on the subject.) (Blatner, 1996). An individual's behavior is simply portrayed by another group member. The director asks others in the group if the portrayal was accurate, and if not, the behavior is replayed again until some consensus is gained regarding its closeness to the original behavior. The person who displayed the behavior to begin with, the one getting the feedback, is thus able to see how s/he had been behaving.

Another variation of this is that of role reversal, in which the protagonist, the person whose problem is the focus of the group at the moment, changes parts with another group member (the "auxiliary") who plays the role of the other character in the protagonist's scene. When the auxiliary, in the role of the protagonist, repeats the behavior, the protagonist in the role of the other person in the scene experiences the impact of that behavior. Whether it's manipulative coyness, subtle intimidation, helplessness, passive-aggressiveness, or other types of interpersonal relatedness, the protagonist is helped to own the meaning (at least to others) of his or her own actions.

The most powerful technique, though, is that of exaggeration. Whatever slight element is being expressed, to bring attention to it, have the protagonist exaggerate the movement or voice element. This exaggeration can be repeated at an even greater magnification, and then exaggerated yet another degree greater. In these more expressive movements or amplified states, the underlying affect and possibly the hidden assumption or attitude tends to come more sharply into awareness.

A related technique is that of variation– doing it either in the opposite way or in another way. The resulting contrasts may again bring a behavior's hidden meaning into sharper awareness.

Learning by Doing

As we review the main categories of nonverbal communications, some teaching exercises will be suggested, the better to highlight the experiences being learned. More, the point is to suggest to the reader that you use these ideas mainly as stimulants to your own creativity in exploring the various behaviors. (If I had to work out an exercise for every element, it could fill a large and rather boring book–boring because it's best to invent the exercise as you experience it in doing your own role playing processes.)

As the major categories of nonverbal behavior are briefly described, some experiential exercises will be noted that might help in learning about their variations. The key to the skill of being observant lies in knowing what to look for. It may be helpful at first to exaggerate a given behavior, and then to gradually express it in increasingly more subtle fashions.

Categories of Nonverbal Communications (Practical Exercises)

You might want to compare this section with Part 1, which describes some of the main elements. This section will suggest some exercises you can do:

Personal Space: Referring to the comfortable or uncomfortable distance between people,  experiment with other group members, using your intuition to say "stop" when others move towards or away from you. However, if those others play the parts of parents, lovers, or children, explore which kinds of closeness feel appropriate. Then imagine the other person to be from a quite foreign culture, and sense into your acceptable personal space. Compare your own repertoire of allowable distances with others in the group.

Eye Contact: Experiment with different times for glancing, gazing, and staring. One can keep contact for 2 seconds or 20 seconds.When does it feel "right" and when does it become intrusive?  Experiment also with the frequency of making eye contact. One can look away, and then look at the person every 5 seconds, holding that gaze as mentioned above for varying lengths of time; or perhaps look at the person only every minute or so.  At what point does it become flirtatious or spooky?

Position:  Here's an exercise I learned from the psychodrama teacher Leon Fine in the mid 1960s: Set up an interaction, say, between a parent and a child. Play the scene first at a 90 degree angle, then, carrying on with the parent standing and the child sitting. Continue the scene as the child turns his or her back to the parent. Then further pursue the interaction with the parent sitting and the child standing, facing each other. Finish the dialogue with both people standing face to face. Other variables may be combined. How does it feel for the parent–or the child–when the parent stands behind or behind-and-slightly-to-the side with the hands resting gently on the shoulders?  Note how certain positions tend to generate corresponding attitudes.

Posture: Try walking around with the pelvis tilted down and forward, as if thrusting the genital area forward with a tightening of the buttocks. Then shift position to it opposite, drawing back the genital area, tilting the buttocks rearward. Note how the former posture encourages a swagger, while the latter generates a tendency to take mincing steps.

Talk and discover what facial expressions and auxiliary postures and movements go with a jaw thrust forward. What about the jaw subtly retracted? Note that this aggressive vs submissive stance is experienced internally as well as interpersonally, as are most other nonverbal behaviors.

As mentioned earlier, experiment with different angles of the head on the neck, cocked slightly or significantly to one side, turned so that one's glance is from the corner of one's eye, thrust forward or pulled back.

Move around with the shoulders pulled back, and then drawn forward, noting the appearance of others in the different position (or oneself in a mirror or on videotape), and also the feelings associated with these two positions. It's hard to be depressed with the shoulders pulled back. Note also that many of these shifts can be almost imperceptible, yet still have an impact on others and in one's own being.

Paralanguage: How you say something can make all the difference in the world!
 Inflection (rising, falling, flat...)
 Pacing (rapid, slow, measured, changing...)
 Intensity (loud, soft, breathy,... )
 Tone (nasal, operatic, growling, wheedling, whining...)
 Pitch (high, medium, low, changes...)
 Pauses (meaningful, disorganized, shy, hesitant...)

The Technique of "Gibberish"

Other exercises to be described may be enacted more effectively without actually having to improvise a dialogue. This involves the generation of a pseudo-language, a gibberish, made of "da da mya mya blah blah blah" rather than real words.  Play with having conversations in this "glossolalia" form--it's also a good exercise for spontaneity training. The vocal inflections are the key, especially as they are associated with facial expression and gesture. The value of this "generic" language is that you don't have to create actual meaningful conversation, a challenge which may distract you from the point of the exercise.

So, just make up a group of sounds, gibberish, as if you were speaking some exotic foreign language, and let your emphasis be through you juggling the variables mentioned above. Working with a partner, try expressing yourself seductively, coyly, surprised, irritated, etc., and respond to your partner's behavior. Then discuss whether you interpreted each others' messages accurately. You'll begin to notice the power of these elements of speech. Using paralanguage frees you to notice the subtleties of feelings associated with nonverbal communications. You'll discover that a not insignificant component of what has been called "intuition" in our culture is the subconscious awareness of the meaning culture gives to various nonverbal communications. Because this is not generally made explicit in the course of traditional education, it remains beyond the grasp of ordinary "left brain" consciousness. Working in pairs, play with different types of distance, eye contact, and position. Have group members notice other variables not mentioned in this paper.

Facial Expression: Using combinations of muscles around the forehead, eyes, mouth, the tilt of the head, eye gaze, and jaw, hundreds of subtle expressions may be formed. Use the actor's technique of standing in front of a mirror while you explore the different kinds of expressions mentioned in Part 1 and enact these so that you can clearly demonstrate the differences to yourself. Drooping or lifting your eyelids, tightening the muscles around your eyes or lips, and numerous other physical expressions can significantly alter your expression. (Notice also, as mentioned in Part 1, that these expressions and other behaviors actually change the way you feel inside–you can almost sense the "attitude" and sometimes even the voice and voice tone and characteristic words that go with an expression, gesture, posture, etc.)

Also, these exercises and learning processes can be even more effective when explored within a group setting-- assuming a context of trust, playfulness, and mutual respect has been established.

Gesture: Similarly, explore the feelings involved in doing or perceiving some of the following:   clenching fist  shaking a finger  pointing... etc.
 (Use the list under this section in Part 1.)
        Recognizing that some of these are more culture-bound than others, do not presume to know what expressions or gestures mean, but notice the behavior, attempt to make it explicit by translating the gesture into spoken language, and then check out what the gesture means to the different people present This is especially important if someone reacts in an unexpected fashion.

Touch: As an exercise, have one person in your group take another by the wrist to draw him forward; compare that to a gentle or firm grip on the back of the upper arm, or on the shoulder, or in the middle of the back. Is the gesture a push or a tug? Is the touch closer to a pat, a rub, or a grabbing? Experiment in dyads with different forms of personal contact, making clear boundaries when some behavior feels like it's becoming uncomfortable.

Locomotion: Try out the various modes of locomotion mentioned in Part 1 and notice what ideas they generate, what feelings, attitudes, impressions:
  slither  crawl   totter   swagger, etc.

Pacing: To appreciate this variable, choose an action such as extending your hand forward, and perform the movement several times. Each time change the quality to one of these (as mentioned in Part 1)...  jerky   pressured  nervous  gradual , etc.

Also, try out varying your "latency of response."  Try answering a question with a bit more delay than you would ordinarily; extend that subtle pause even longer, and observe what it does to the conversation.

Adornment: Try having a variety of hats and watching the sense of role that comes with the hat, let the hat suggest the associated behavior. Although I'm generally in favor of a relinquishment of the cigarette as a vehicle for nonverbal communication, I must confess that the different ways people might carry or brandish these expressions of "coolness," style, represented strong semiotic statements. Try out different ways, like that caricature of the Nazi interrogating officer holding the cigarette palm up between the thumb and forefinger. Experiment with your glasses, or a cane, etc.

Context: Have the group move the chairs into different positions: Classroom style, with the group leader at the front and everyone lined up in rows. In a circle, a half circle. Chairs at random, some more forward, some more pulled back  Play with the lighting. Experiment and see how things feel!

Physiological Responses: As noted in Part 1, these can't easily be practiced. But some can be mimicked. So do what you can.

Other Ways of Learning about Nonverbal Communications

Over the last several decades a number of methods of therapy have been developed which offer experiences which help students become more sensitive to the richness of the nonverbal dimension of interpersonal relationships (Fine, 1959). Albert Pesso's "psychomotor therapy," Alexander Lowen's "bioenergetic analysis," Arthur Janov's "primal therapy," the field of dance and movement therapy, and other "body" therapies all increase body awareness (Marrone, 1990, Blatner, 2000, p. 133). Some approaches, such as Moshe Feldenkreis' approach or that of F.M. Alexander have applications primarily beyond the context of psychotherapy; skills in managing one's own body more consciously may be considered to be part of what the educated person will want to know in the coming years.

Recent studies of the hypnotic techniques of Milton Erickson and the methods of other master psychotherapists led to the development of approaches which note subtleties of eye movement, breathing, and other nonverbal cues (Bandler & Grinder, 1975). It was also noted that different people seem more sensitive to certain modes of perception, so that some react more to visual cues, others to auditory cues, and still others to their own internal kinesthetic or feeling cues. Thus, the impact of a person's voice tone or facial expression also varies according to the temperament of the recipient of the communication.


People react to the unspoken, as much (if not more) to how something is said as to what are the explicit meaning of the words. Misunderstandings can often be clarified if the people involved have the ability to notice and comment on the nonverbal communications in an interaction. Psychodramatic methods, especially those of enactment, replay, mirroring, doubling, role reversal, coaching and role training, are effective vehicles for developing this kind of awareness.

Therapists need to learn the range of nonverbal behaviors in order to diagnose the often subtle dynamics of the situation and the people involved. These nonverbal actions offer clues to the underlying defenses, mixed feelings, and disowned intentions. Co-therapists and the clients themselves also benefit from this awareness, because the ability to comment on the nonverbal communications in an interaction allows participants to modify the process of problem-solving as well as addressing the "content" of the issues themselves.

The field of nonverbal communications has grown rapidly over the last few decades, and it has applications in business, media, international relations, education, and indeed any field which significantly involves interpersonal and group dynamics. An overview of this field was noted in Part 1 on this website. Certainly there is a need for more psychological mindedness in all these realms, and the techniques of experiential education offer invaluable tools for the building of social skills.


Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. (1975). The structure of magic, Vol. I. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Blatner, A. (1985). Becoming aware of nonverbal communication. In A. Blatner, Role development: A systematic approach to building basic skills. San Marcos, TX: Author. (Now out of print.)

Blatner, A. (1996). Acting-In: Practical aspects of psychodramatic methods (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.

Blatner, A. (2000). Foundations of psychodrama. New York: Springer. (pp. 101-103, on "expression and action")

Fast, J. (1971). Body language. New York: Pocket Books.

Fine, L.J. (1959). Nonverbal aspects of psychodrama. In J. Masserman & J.L. Moreno (Eds.), Progress in psychotherapy (Vol. 4). New York: Grune & Stratton.

Hickson III, Mark L. & Stacks, Don W. (1985). Nonverbal communication: Studies and applications. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown.

Marrone, R. (1990). Body of knowledge: An introduction to body/mind psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Morris, D. (1977). Manwatching: A field guide to human behavior. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Morris, D., Collett, P., Marsh, P., & O'Shaughnessy, M. (1979). Gestures: Their origins and distribution. New York: Stein & Kay.

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