Aren’t you drawn to warm, affectionate people? We feel immediately comfortable with them. What is it that makes them so approachable? It might be the warmth of their smile or their eye contact with you.
However, if you pay attention, you might be surprised to find how often warm people touch others. They shake hands with firm, full palm contact…not a limp-fish handshake. They may even pat you on the shoulder as they shake your hand. Or they let their hand rest just for a moment on your forearm. Or they greet you with a side hug, knowing that a full hug seems too intimate and may make you uncomfortable. All during the conversation, they continue to communicate through touch.
Touch is our primary language of compassion. Maybe you can remember a time when you were hurting, and a trusted confidante or parent enveloped you in their arms. Your heartbeat slowed, your sobs subsided, and you were able to breathe again. Touch changed your life at that moment. You knew you were not alone. Someone was there for you.
Communication through touch is fundamental to human bonding and health. At Berkeley University of California they studied whether people can communicate compassion through touch. They built a barrier in the lab that separated two strangers. One person stuck his or her arm through the barrier and waited. The other person was given a list of emotions. He or she had to try to convey each emotion through a one-second touch to the stranger’s forearm. The person whose arm was being touched had to guess the emotion.
Remarkably, the guesses were correct nearly 60 percent of the time. They got the emotions – gratitude, anger, love, and fear – right more than 50 percent of the time. Gender seems to have a bearing on the results. Interestingly, when a woman tried to communicate anger to a man, he had no idea what she was doing. And when a man tried to communicate compassion to a woman, she didn’t understand it.
In another study these researchers found, “People can not only identify love, gratitude, and compassion from touches but can differentiate between those kinds of touch, something people haven’t done as well in studies of facial and vocal communication.”
People understand your words better if you touch them. No that doesn’t mean if you’re angry you should punch someone. However, when you’re working to keep the line of communication open enough so that you can touch them, you’ll be more mindful about controlling your emotions. As you touch them, it reminds you that you love and appreciate this person and you want to mend the rift in your relationship, which helps you calm down. And they will feel that intention despite the hurt or anger and will be more open to listening to you.
Do you see how powerful touch can become in your communication? Which do you think will have more success? Yelling at your daughter to “get in here” then standing with your hands on your hips glaring at her? Or putting your hand on her shoulder, guiding her to the couch where you can sit closely as you look her in the eye and discuss the problem earnestly?
In the office, which will create greater team spirit and employee loyalty? Sitting behind your desk, writing on a notepad as you talk with an employee? Or greeting the employee at the door with a handshake and pat on the shoulder as you guide them to chairs that are next to each other?
Remember, to pay close attention to the signals that someone might be uncomfortable with being touched. You want to respect their boundaries so you don’t unwittingly increase their stress. Also, because of your background and upbringing, you may not feel comfortable with touching or being touched. But you can choose to make changes in an effort to improve your communication skills. It’s a basic human need. Not only will it make you healthier, it will make your relationships thrive.
Somatic coaching and therapy is an excellent way to create subtle shifts in how you use your body to influence, listen, and communicate. If you’re ready to make real and lasting changes in how you relate to others, contact me to learn how in a way that leaves you feeling wonderful and at peace.
Touch is just one of the indicators of a healthy life. Take the 7-Point Body Wellness Assessment to see how you measure up. Click here to download your free copy. And don’t forget that January 21, 2016 is National Hugging Day. Who will you hug?