8 benefits of using alternatives of non-talking approaches in counselling

30 Nov 2022

You may have heard that using nonspeaking approaches - essentially anything other than talking, such as movement, gesture, body posture, creating art, music or craft, listening to music, tactile or sensory experiences, working with the breath, touch or play - offer a number of benefits in counselling or supporting others. Here, we explore eight ways that alternatives to talking may support your ability to connect with children and adults, enhance your therapeutic practice, and help your clients, students or patients to find other ways to feel safe and understand their experience.

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When words are not enough, we turn to images and symbols to tell our stories. And in telling our stories through art, we find pathways to wellness, recovery and transformation.

Cathy Malchiodi

What do you see when you look at the photo above?

You might be quite literal and say the obvious:

  • It's a ripped piece of paper with circles of red and black oil pastels.
  • It has heavy lines criss-crossed in yellow, red, purple and black across it.
  • The drawing lies on a timber desk or floor and there are smaller ripped pieces of paper strewn alongside, with a packet of colourful oil pastels at the edge.

Those might be the words, or the description.

But what is the impact on you?

  • Do you feel curious, comfortable, alarmed or otherwise?
  • What is the felt sense of the artwork?
  • What does it feel like in your body to take the image in?
  • What does it tell you that perhaps would have been difficult to put into words?
  • What do you imagine the artist was feeling or expressing?

If we assume the drawing is expressing some sort of intensity, do you sense a difference between someone saying "I've had a big day" or "today has been intense", compared with:

  • the heavy lines and urgency of the drawing?
  • the repeated circling of the black?
  • the definitive and assertive lines?

Would we have felt these same flavours of mood and experience without the drawing?

The communication would at least be very different.

The drawing gives us different information; a different expression; and a different window into the world of its creator.

Beyond words through acting, music, lighting and stagecraft.

I recently took my son to see a play, 'Past the Shallows' at the Peacock Theatre at the Salamanca Arts Centre in nipaluna / Hobart, lutruwita / Tasmania.

As stated by Archipelago Productions:

"Adapted by playwright Julian Larnach from Favel Parrett’s award-winning debut novel, Past The Shallows is an ode to brotherhood and a heart-wrenching, lyrical exploration of mortality, family secrets and the capacity for both brutality and tenderness within contemporary masculinity".

It was indeed heart-wrenching, beautiful and intense; or, as my son said "that was amazing, but stressful!".

Wonderful young actors brought the story to life through a fabulous screenplay. Perhaps more importantly, they were able to do this through an ability to reach below the words alone and into a flow of:

  • gestures,
  • movement,
  • emotion,
  • body posture and positioning
  • facial and vocal expression, and
  • interaction with each other, the lighting and the music.

The mood was supported through beautiful lighting of watery images and shifting clouds, and compelling, poignant and, at times, dark instrumental music.

I have not read the novel of the same name by Favel Parrett. Given that the novel won the Dobbie Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012, I have no doubt it is a wonderful read.

However, bringing the story to life via the raw emotion and turmoil of this play - through the nonverbal elements - offers another way to connect with the material.

Sometimes, talking and reading is the way; but without the embodied storytelling of the actors, the stage, the music and the lighting, our access to the raw truth of the experience is not so accessible.

I see the same in therapy.

If you'd like a summary of non-talking approaches in counselling, and why they may be an essential part of any health or education professional's toolkit, see this recent blog: Going underneath: beyond talk therapy.

What are the benefits of using nonspeaking approaches?

1. Creating safety

Often it is just too much to interact directly when you see your counsellor or therapist. Talking, eye contact, sitting directly across from someone while your exploring some really hard stuff? It can be awkward at best and shaming at worst.

There are multiple levels to creating safety in session.

Nonspeaking approaches offer many ways to take the pressure off and invite safer pathways to connection and understanding through:

  • regulating the subcortical regions of the brain (sensorimotor systems, emotions, memory and the stress response), enhancing our capacity to focus and support ourselves through the tricky stuff
  • parallel play experiences like drawing, crafting, drumming or even playing games together can support both children and adults to build trust and connection
  • many nonspeaking experiences also tap into our feel-good hormones and neurochemicals that support the development of trust and connection, and stimulate the reward centres of our brains

Taking the pressure off talking and explaining, and offering opportunities for building trust and connection through experiences like drawing, crafting, drumming or even playing games together can be really helpful.

2. Finding another way

Two facts drive a need to find another way to communicate beyond words:

  1. Over 80% of our experience is processed below our planning, thinking brain and conscious awareness, in the subcortical realms that manage our feelings, memories, body sensations, movement, senses and stress response.
  2. When we are pushed out of our window of tolerance by stress, feeling threatened, anger, feeling flat, we are unable to engage our 'thinking brain' in a coherent way.

It is little wonder we get stuck for words!

Particularly when we are overwhelmed, tired or distressed, finding another way to connect with, express and make sense of our experiences becomes even more critical.

Nonspeaking approaches offer titrated exposure to difficult material by acting as a buffer between us and our experience.

We may not be able to talk about an experience, a sense of disconnection, feeling or felt sense in the body but can we:

  • draw it
  • find a shape, colour, image, action, movement, sound or posture that represents it
  • write it down
  • notice where it is located in or around our body
  • use gesture to show what we may have wanted to do in the past, or during an event or interaction
  • find a song or piece of music that expresses it?

3. Connect with the present experience

Connecting with what is happening in the moment can be a useful source of inquiry. We may not have the words, but we can

  • show with a gesture what we may have wanted to do in the past / during an event or interaction
  • notice what is happening within us through body sensations, feelings, images that come to mind, or how fast or slow we are talking
  • find a piece of music or a colour to represent our experience

What might the body want to do in this moment?

What images, movements, facial expressions, sounds, gestures might represent your experience right now?

Is there a picture card, song or figurine / symbol that shows your current experience?

Notice what part of your body is calling for attention and, if it feels right, place a hand on that body part. Sit with what is there, or notice what it feels like to have your hand there.

Bring awareness to how fast or slow you are talking, how tense or relaxed you are right now.

4. Making the implicit, explicit

Many of our memories and experiences are stored outside of our conscious awareness, and if they have been frightening or traumatic, they may be quite fragmented and difficult to access. In these cases we are often lost for words, but finding a sound, a song, a symbol, character or image can help us to explore and externalise some of this intangibility.

Moving out of logic and into the experience of our subcortical and more right- brain world of the nonverbal can facilitate access to feelings, memories and sensorimotor states.

5. Attunement

Attunement is the process by which we 'tune into' the feelings and experience of another; where we put ourselves in someone else's shoes and let them know that we understand.

Anyone who's been around young babies know this well:

  • we suddenly find ourselves talking in a softer, more meldoious voice
  • we smile and our faces become more expressive

Did you notice these qualities are not in the words, but the sounds, the body language and the nonverbal communication? Whilst we can use words to convey our understanding, it is mostly in the nonverbal that we share attunement with another.

6. Regulation for client

Regulation can be described as the ability to

  • be aware of oneself (thoughts, sensations, feelings, interactions)
  • connect to and flexibly respond to ourselves, others and the environment around us
  • respond to what we need in the moment with support

Breathing, moving, drawing, playing or listening to music, looking away, focusing on something else can help us to regulate, or recalibrate our systems when we become dysregulated: activated into a state of hyperarousal, freeze or shutdown.

The ability to regulate ourselves or experience a bigger, wiser, kinder presence facilitated our regulation, can be supported by expressing our experience safely.

7. Regulation for therapist

Helpers need regulation too!

And we are influenced by the experiences of others whether we like it or not.

I have spoken about the risks of connection for helping professionals here, and authors Emily and Amelia Nagosky have stepped out the critical importance of completing the stress cycle in their wonderful book, 'Burnout'.

Engaging with nonverbal appraoches in counselling offer opportunities for us to complete own stress response cycles in session, thereby mitigating the vicarious impacts of our work, whilst also supporting regulation.

In session, in classroms, in meetings - there are so many ways that we can support ourselves to be regulated - and they don't need to be explicit. In fact, often we are doing these things without even realising.

Stretching, yawning, big in-breaths, heavy sighs, joking around... these are all part of regulating ourselves.

In counselling, we can safely and appropriately share our sadness, frustration or excitement for and with clients by channeling our experience into shared experiences such as drawing, movement, playing drums, taking breaths and changing position. As long as it is done carefully and appropriately, this is protective for us as practitioners and is good modelling for clients.

8. Opening and flexibility

The river of integration is a concept devised by Dr Dan Siegel, that discusses the need for openness and flexibility in order to reflect, integrate the pieces of our experience and make new meaning.

Being playful and curious are often key components of nonverbal approaches in counselling and are also essential for authenticity and creating opportunties for growth.

If you would like to know more about working with nonverbal approaches, join us for an online 2 hour introductory workshop to nonspeaking approaches in counselling on October 13, 7 - 9pm AEST:

Beyond talk therapy: an introduction to nonspeaking approaches in counselling.

No trauma therapy is complete without really addressing the brain, mind and body and really connecting all three.

Dr Ruth Lanius

Related Resources

Header image: Alex Jones