The Subtle Cues of Communication

June 1, 2018

Written by

Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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“You cannot ‘not’ communicate.”

In the world of communication theory, this is a common adage.  This means that no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to refrain from communicating with those around you.  Since most communication occurs through non-verbal cues transmitted both consciously and subconsciously, we are communicating whether we want to or not.  Even silence is communicating something.  So when couples or family members say, “Our problem is that we don’t communicate with one another,” they are misinformed.  They are communicating a great deal.  It’s more likely that they aren’t communicating very effectively and often don’t like the messages being exchanged.

As human beings, we have the ability to transmit and detect very subtle cues from one another.  It could be compared to an emotional Wi-Fi system that each of us possesses, sending out signals to the people in our proximity.  Those people, in turn, have a corresponding Wi-Fi system that automatically receives and interprets those signals.  This is happening whether we want it to or not. Unfortunately, these signals are subject to a great deal of misinterpretation.

So where do these Wi-Fi signals come from, and how are they transmitted?  Well, it’s a complex process that happens faster than our conscious mind can keep up with and more subtle than we can perceive.  Most of these signals are made up of different body gestures called micro-expressions. These tiny movements are almost imperceptible to the naked eye, especially if you’re not paying attention to them.  They consist of small adjustments of the facial muscles, constriction or dilation of the pupils, movements of the limbs and extremities, body posture, tone of voice, and breathing patterns, to name a few.  Most of these signals are involuntary, and the person transmitting them usually doesn’t know that they are doing it.  In addition, the person who is receiving these signals may know something is being communicated but is seldom able to identify the source of these signals.  To make matters worse, the receiver usually doesn’t have enough information to interpret these signals accurately.  Thus, you get a dialogue that looks something like this:

Mom: “Jeffry, I see you got a C on your geometry test.  Are you having trouble understanding the material?”

Jeffry: “No, Mom, I just had a bad day when I took the test.  I’m doing fine in the class.”

Mom: “No need to get defensive, Jeffry. I’m just concerned about how you’re doing in school.”

Jeffry: “Well, you don’t need to jump all over me about it, Mom.  It’s not like I’m a bad student.”

Mom: “I’m not ‘jumping all over you.’  I just asked a question.  I don’t appreciate the tone you’re taking with me.”

Jeffry: “I don’t have a ‘tone.’  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You’re getting all ballistic over a stupid test!”

The next thing you know, both Mom and Jeffry find themselves locked in a battle over who’s attacking who and which of them is being overly sensitive.  Both of them find themselves frustrated by the conversation.  It’s a common scenario that can sometimes lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and disrupted attachment between family members.  Mom and Jeffry don’t notice their respective micro-expressions roles in the unfolding drama.  There is much more to this conversation than just the words they are using and the content they convey.

How often have you had a family member say to you, “What was that look about?” or “What’s the matter?  I can tell something’s bothering you,” and you have no idea what they are talking about?  Often, these micro-expressions communicate emotional states you may not be aware of at the moment.  Consequently, a whole assortment of miscommunications happens in a short amount of time.  If left unexamined and unaddressed, these miscues can lead to disruptive outcomes for families.

Here at The Meadows, we prioritize healthy communication between family members.  One aspect of our intensive Family Matters Workshop is fostering clear, direct communication.  This includes, but is not limited to, the words each family member says to one another.  Each individual must also gain a better awareness of their own emotional states and micro-expressions, as well as those of their or loved ones.  This is an essential component of healthy communication.

The Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows offers customized intensive workshops for families struggling to communicate effectively and for numerous other relational problems.  If you want to know more about our Family Matters Workshop or any other workshops, contact our intake department at 1-800-244-4949 for more information or visit our website at:

Written by:  John Parker, MS, LMFT, SATP, CSAT, Therapist at Rio Retreat Center