Non-Verbal Communication

All extracts are taken from the “Safer Doors” book. Published by Geddes and Grossett. Copyright laws apply.

When we communicate with others we not only give out verbal messages, but non-verbal messages as well, which gives others signals about our attitude and personality. These non-verbal signals are normally given out sub-consciously, without us even realising what we are doing.

Various academic sources estimate that only about a 10th or our information comes from the verbal or spoken word, the rest coming from non-verbal signals given off by us to the person we are communicating with.

It makes sense, then, that as door supervisors interact with people during the course of their duties they should take care to ensure that they only give off the non-verbal signs that they mean to, and that they can accurately interpret those signals given off by others.

Supervisors need to appreciate that the meaning and use of non-verbal communication varies between individuals, cultures, sexes and even circumstances, so they should not jump to hasty conclusions on the strength of one-off gestures or signals. They should also be aware of their own style of non-verbal behaviour to make sure that they do not unwittingly offend people or give the wrong impression of themselves or of the profession as a whole. The early recognition of anger, frustration or aggression during an encounter can also reduce violent incidents, thereby reducing the chances of supervisors being injured at work.

Non-verbal communication can be divided into two groups, namely supplementary verbal language and body language.

The phrase “It’s not what you say, but how you say it explains precisely what supplementary verbal language means.

Door supervisors need to use a gentle tone in their voice, for example, when trying to reassure a victim or when trying to obtain information from someone they need help from. They may need to use an assertive tone, however, when trying to be authoritative to establish control during an incident. It is not so much the words themselves, but the way in which those words are said which would determine whether or not the supervisor is taken notice of.

Some people regularly use spaces or pauses between words and sentences. They also use totally meaningless words and phrases such as “you know what I mean” or “ers” and “ums”. These are usually used to give the speaker time to think about what he or she is going to say next, and their frequency often increases when they are nervous or under stress.

A person’s voice, including the words, intonation, vocabulary, accent and even certain phrases can give a lot of information about their basic background, culture, class, age, sex, colour or attitude. Variations in volume, pitch and rhythm can also show how they feel in particular situations.

Body language is the name given to the whole group of non-verbal signs we give out as we interact with others. If door supervisors are aware of their own body language then they will be able to display deliberate signs and signals to give them control in situations where it is required. If they can successfully interpret the body language of others they will be able to understand how someone is feeling during an encounter, and then decide on the best way to deal with them. As mentioned earlier, being able to predict someone’s aggressive attitude before it has a chance to unfold will enable supervisors to react accordingly, thereby giving them the opportunity to discourage or prevent acts of violence towards themselves or others.

It is said that in the first 10 seconds of meeting or seeing someone we form an impression of what they are like, and that they form an opinion of us. Even before words are exchanged this happens, so it follows that our appearance, our clothes and demeanour, go a long way to determining how others perceive us, and how we perceive them. Having said that, door supervisors also have to be careful not to be unduly influenced by a person’s appearance, age, dress, speech or gestures, thereby reducing the chances of making inaccurate or unfair judgements. They should also be conscious of their own self-image and how they use it to influence those around them. There can be a difference between the way we see ourselves and the way that others interpret that image.

Supervisors need to project a clean, smart and positive image to customers. Dirty or unkempt clothes or uniform creates a bad visual image, as can the wearing of unnecessary jewellery. The large gold sovereign rings, for example, can project an aggressive image to some people, particularly to those who see them as potential weapons as well as ornaments.

Although the types of clothes a person wears, or how they wear them, can reveal clues about their personality, they can also be like a costume and represent what the wearer is pretending or trying to be.

How a person stands, arranges their body or angles their head in relation to others can also give clues about their personality and as to how they may be feeling. It can also show how much interest a person is taking in a situation, and how much respect or approval they may be feeling.

The position of someone’s head during an encounter, for example, can indicate feelings they are having at that time. If their head is bowed forward it usually indicates submission or support, particularly if it is nodding. Held slightly back may show signs of aggressive tendencies, but held upright may show assertion or awareness.

Facial expressions are generally thought to be the most revealing form of non-verbal communication. Such signals are usually sent sub-consciously as they are the most difficult for a person to control, and so are probably the most accurate to interpret as well. Expressions can, however, have different meanings for different people. A frown can mean puzzlement or annoyance, and a raised eyebrow can mean either surprise or disbelief. A smile can mean friendliness, happiness, or can be an attempt to conceal distress.

Differences also exist between the non-verbal signs that are used by males and females. Women, for example, usually smile more than men during encounters with others, and tend to adopt a less relaxed pose than men.

Supervisors need to be aware that people’s facial expressions can mean more than one thing, so must be careful not to make the wrong decisions when dealing with members of the public in what are sometimes very stressful situations.

We all use our eyes to give and receive more information than any other part of our body. It is said that just by looking at someone, and in particular at his or her eyes, we can quickly assess their attitude, and tell during an encounter whether they are going to behave aggressively or submissively. We can often also decide on their state of mind at the time, as in whether they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or whether they have any form of mental condition.

The length of actual eye contact we give someone is also important. Giving someone too much eye contact during a confrontation can appear too domineering to some people, or even aggressive. Just by looking away from the person occasionally during the conversation can make us appear much more relaxed and less confrontational, showing us to be more of a helper than a hinderer.

Maintaining a good healthy amount of eye contact during a conversation with someone can also show that person that we are actively listening to what they have to say to us. Nodding occasionally as we listen also shows concern and support, and that we are taking in what they are saying.

Touch is often used as people communicate with each other, usually to emphasise a point. It is also used to show control or dominance.

Physical contact is obviously acceptable in close or friendly relationships, but door supervisors need to be careful not to offend or frighten people by touching them when it is not necessary. They should also show courtesy and sensitivity when touching people during a search at the point of entry for example.

A person’s gestures and movements have a lot of meaning when taken in context with what they are saying. Some people have their own personalised set of gestures that they use regularly, and observing these can show a wide range of emotions.

Showing the open hands and making the palms visible tends to show openness, as does the uncrossing of arms. Gripping the opposite arm with a hand, crossing the arms or holding the hands in front of the genital area on the other hand tends to indicate defensiveness.

Someone who has their hands clenched with the thumbs rubbing over each other, or who nail bites or touches their throat or something worn at the throat may suggest that the person is in need of some kind of reassurance or is frustrated in some way. Other signs of frustration include running fingers through the hair, scuffing at the ground or hand wringing.

Confidence may be indicated by more frequent or prolonged eye contact, an erect posture, a faint smile or hands clasp behind the back. Nervousness may be seen by the subject maintaining a distance from the other person, quick and jerky movements of the body, furtive movements of the eyes or clearing of the throat before speaking. Nervous people also fidget a lot when under pressure.

We have outlined briefly some of the more common signals that people give out during an encounter.

Door supervisors need to learn to recognise these signals so that they can readily identify potential problems, and so react accordingly or take the appropriate safety measures.

They also need to be aware of their own aggressive or unco-operative signals to the people they deal with. They must learn to fine-tune their own communication skills so that they can be used to the best effect.

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