The power to be changed

Why verbal communication is frightening and non-verbal communication is basically a monologue
© KV — coot chick with a double view of the world

It’s so simple that it feels like breaking down an open door.

Words spell things out.

This is both beautiful and deeply frightening.

If you use words, in straightforward verbal communication, what you mean to say is out in the open, for everyone to hear and understand. This is beautiful in the sense that it is honest. Sometimes raw and unpolished, or possibly crude, like a lump of mountain crystal can be unpolished and have grit or sharp edges. But it will not pretend to be something other than it is. What you see (or in this case, what you hear) is what you get.

(I know there are those who can use words as a means of deceit, but for the sake of simplicity let’s not go there just now.)

In an earlier post on this topic I talked about how in our family we were taught you could discuss anything, as long as you did it respectfully.
In the course of my life, I learned this isn’t always true. A lot of people do not want to discuss everything. To the contrary, they shy away from words.


One of the scary parts about saying things exactly as you feel or perceive them, is that you cannot take them back. Well, yes you can, if you apologize or correct yourself afterwards, but at first that’s not what it feels like. Once voiced, the ripples of your words, the literal sound waves if you like, are out there, and will continue their way across the universe.

There is a reason this frightens us. Words are powerful. It is no coincidence that in rituals, speeches or any other kind of ceremony the priest or leader will speak the Words. The audience doesn’t receive his message on paper, which would save him the trouble of delivering the speech or sermon. And no preacher ever says: this weeks’s crede is exactly the same as last week’s, you all know how it goes so we can skip that part…
The words are spoken for all to hear. And for good reason. Words hold a magic power that brings what was hidden into existence. If you say it, it becomes real.

So if you speak up in a conversation, those things, too, become ‘real’ to the world. In words, you have exposed yourself, and there’s is no way to run for cover and pretend you didn’t.

No wonder it scares the living hell out of us.

© KV — coot family, ostrich style

Apart from exposure, you risk another thing when you speak: a reply.

This took some time to get my head around, but gratefully my husband, a lapsed non-verbalist, explained to me how it works.

A lot of non-verbal communication is born from the notion that we do not want to hurt others. They might say or do something we do not agree with, and by not publicly calling them out, we allow them to keep their dignity.
It works the other way around, too: others will not confront us with something they don’t agree with in our behaviour. Nobody gets exposed, nobody gets hurt. Or at least, that’s the theory.

It almost sounds as if there is no communication at all in non-verbal circles — and it sure looked like that to me, at first. Now, I know that there is in fact a lot of traffic going on under the surface. People are sending out messages, unspoken though they may be. The big difference that comes with non-verbal communication is: there is no room for a reply.

Non-verbal communication is not a conversation. It is a message sent out by one party with the clear intention of being received by the other, who should then heed it. If you’re on the receiving end, there is no way you can refuse what you are being ‘told’ — unless you pretend you haven’t picked up the message. You can’t say: hey, I understand you would like me to do this or that, but I’m not feeling very comfortable with that, so is it okay if I rather… There is no room for negotiation, simply because there is no room for words, or a direct addressing of the issue.

That is why non-verbal communication is in fact a monologue — or several monologues, sent out by different people to each other. And the messages sent out by those who are most powerful in the relationship or rank highest in the hierarchy are to be obeyed. To do otherwise, is to risk ostracizing.

Of course conversation partners using verbal means of making themselves clear are not always on equal footing either. You can have a very short verbal exchange with your boss in which it is quite clear what he expects of you. But usually in a verbal conversation there is at least the opportunity of appeal, or the possibility of clarification. You are allowed to ask questions, or to explain why something doesn’t sit right with you.

None of that in non-verbal messaging: the demands have to be met by the receiving party. End of story. It makes non-verbal communication styles especially undemocratic and prone to further strengthening relationships in which one party holds power over another, since the advantage is always with the stronger party (parent, boss, socially more apt individual). The (rather extreme) verbal equivalent of this might be a military-style briefing.

© KV — great cormorant dominating the pond

So to come back to the earlier point: why do we shun the possibility of getting a reply?

For the exact same reason a military commander doesn’t want one: if you invite (or allow) someone to reply, there’s no guarantee he will agree with what you just said. He may well express a completely different opinion. He might argue that you are mistaken and he might even have a point.

Allowing for a reply is being open to the possibility that a conversation will challenge your views and will ultimately change you.

We don’t like to be challenged, let alone changed.
So we retreat into the silence, the monologue, the stronghold in which we feel safe and we and our opinions of ourselves and the world are left undisturbed. We kill the conversation.

The laws of nature teach us that there is only one underlying principle to everything that lives: change. Constant evolution. That which stops evolving solidifies, calcifies and eventually dies.

Let’s start talking to each other a little more often.

© KV — Magpie conversation